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Gary Lucas

Live at the Jazz Cafe, London

Anyone in need or search of a varied and individual evening of musical treasures should really have been at this show in London. Lucas cuts an avuncular figure in his red jacket and white hat and after a well-honed opening set from Gemma Ray (without her band this time) Gary takes the stage to give something of an update on recent works and also some past glories but without a trace of self-aggrandisement. For a hint of Mr Lucas’ history and motivations, check our Q&A with the great man on this site, but as his latest foray is a venture with Andrew Loog Oldham the legendary Stones alumnus, this time down in Columbia and other South American territories for an album of Stones material with a Latin slant, Lucas kicks off with an energetic sample instrumental before taking the attentive and good-natured crowd on a world tour of sonic delights.

The set takes in a Skip James minor tuning workout, a stonking nod to the late NY eccentric Arthur Russell and even a medley of 1930’s Chinese pop hits, the latter delivered with fleet dexterity in unusual scales yet never lacking swing and melodic runs. Quite remarkable and demonstrative of this startling guitar genius’ versatility.

Equally appealing is a mini-set with Indian singing goddess Najma Akhtar, soon to be Lucas’ partner in a stage set at Womad in the Canary Islands and co-creator of the World Music Charting cd ‘Rishte’. East meets West roots music in grand style here and the three numbers included conjure up the Mississippi flowing gracefully into the Ganges at dusk. Quite beautiful and the last of the three duets based upon a hypnotic Delta Blues riff has Akhtar’s voice floating high over a built-up mesh of spacey textures hitting alarming crescendos, with what sounds for all the world – OK, Universe ! – like a flock of robot seagulls making way for a space rocket docking. Your scribe saw Pink Floyd’s first ever quadrophonic show up in the Sussex Hills aeons ago in the middle of the night and this sounded more intergalactic and dynamic than the four of them put together !

Lucas has a fine line in true stories, some black thoughts on the evils of the music business, some ruminations on the origin of pieces or friendships made and remembered. None more touching than his celebrated of course than his work with Jeff Buckley and Gary included the nimble instrumental ‘Rise Up To Be’ which Buckley morphed into the song ‘Grace’ ; he later alluded to his time with the Beefheart Magic band by spinning into the slide workout ‘Sho Nuff And Yes I Do’.

The audience warmed to the performer, one helping out with a string replacement exercise on Lucas’ beloved 1946 Gibson acoustic whilst the guitar maestro switched to his pale blue 1966 Strat and conjured up more skybound soundscapes. In less witty hands some of these pieces would be on the dry side, but Lucas’ persona is very close to our keyboard and Grateful Dead hero Tom Constanten’s, musical and knowledgable but never condescending. It’s a painless way to learn about music’s broad appeal and visit its lost backwaters.

Full circle is attained when to close the set, Gary takes Robert Johnson’s ‘Hellhound On My Trail’ to a screaming ghostworld of layered and looped paranoia. Can a bloke with a couple of guitars truly conjure up all this, you might wonder. Go see Mr Lucas please and wonder no more…

Pete Sargeant

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