Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Lee "Scratch" Perry Alive and Well

Lee 'Scratch' Perry, The Custard Factory, Birmingham
Review by Martin Longley
Published: 12 October 2005

Lee "Scratch" Perry dwells in a curious state of being at once one of reggae's pivotal producers while also being a true cult figure. He's always been eccentric, but in his early days he shaped a callow Bob Marley and recorded some of the most commercial singles to come out of Jamaica. In the Seventies, Perry was a leading innovator in the creation of dub, a radically minimalist mixing-desk art that retains some power over all worthwhile dance music.

The problem with Perry's live shows is matching up to the legend. The first time I saw him, at this venue in 2003, his performance was more subdued, the backing band more conventional. This time, Perry is wired up with a palpable tension, clearly in the mood for being a more forceful front-man.

He bobs onstage looking like a reconstruction of a Pearly King and a tiny jockey, garlanded with shiny trinkets. He's a shamanic priest, carrying a bottle stuffed with smoking incense, flicking it about above his head as if he's sanctifying venue and audience.

Perry uses the first number to introduce himself. The tumbling phonetics and burred tones would be impressive enough without the absurdist lyrical content. Surely Mark E Smith of The Fall must have picked up some of his own rambling surrealism and confrontational hectoring from Perry.

Earlier in the evening, Neal "The Mad Professor" Fraser had been celebrating 25 years of his Ariwa Sounds label. Now, surely, Fraser must be manning the mixing desk, cutting and throwing around the live band's drums, bass, keyboards and guitar, manipulating Perry's vocals with extreme echo trimmings. Fraser and Perry first worked together 20 years ago, and the bond is now tight, the two of them touring together regularly.

"War in a Babylon" is a highlight, the tune Perry created with Max Romeo updated to reflect the current global climate. A couple of tunes push their rhythms away from reggae, opening up to a faster, hybridised descendent.

Few performers are able to spread such a sense of complete spontaneity. He is nothing like a conventional singer, but Perry's is one of modern music's most distinctive voices.

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