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Rock & Folk # 399 (France), November 2000
"Level The Playing Field – Early Hurlyburly 1988-1994"
He can be considered as the (spiritual) son among
the "Beefheart family". Gary Lucas has kept himself
particularly busy lately, publishing album after album.
We are not going to complain about this here – this
guitar player has remained unknown to the public for
too long. This album compiles the best titles from the
discs he has recorded with his composite band, Gods &
Monsters. The compilation includes the participation of
musicians as gifted as drummers Jonathan Kane (formerly
Swans), Michael Blair and Tony Thunder Smith, bass
players Ernie Brooks and Tony Maimone, and singers Rolo
McGinty (Woodentops) and Jon Langford (Mekons). The
songs are always original and surprising, between rock,
electronica, punk and jazz (such as the unlikely medley
of Miles Davis "Jack Johnson" with
As a bonus, there are two instrumental pieces, which,
after they had been offered to Jeff Buckley,
became "Mojo Pin" and "Grace". Magisterial.
Folk Roots (UK), December 2000
Level the Playing Field Last Call 3063132
Street of Lost Brothers Tzadik 7145
by Ian Kearey
No-one could accuse Gary Lucas of being slothful: these days his albums
come flying at the reviewer from all directions and on a multiplicity of
labels. The first of these two offerings at the altar of crazed
existential guitar playing, Level the Playing Field, is subtitled Early
HurlyBurly, which pretty well sums it up—the unifying factor is Lucas's
mix of amphetamine ragtime playing and musique-concrete concept, whether
on covers of Miles Davis, collaborations with Mekon Jon Langford, Mary
Margaret O'Hara or Sony Cohen (Pete Seeger's niece), or his own work,
solo or with his power-avant folk-metal trio, Gods and Monsters. There's
blues in there as well (Vampire Circus), singalongs (Let's Go Swimming)
and protest (Whip Named Lash and After Strange Gods). All good family
entertainment—if you're the Addams Family, perhaps—and a constant
source of amazement and amusement.
Lucas's brand of mordant humour comes to the fore on Street of Lost
Brothers: why else would there be a track called Level the Playing Field
here, rather than on the album of the same name? Such mindfucks apart,
this is ostensibly a tribute to the man's Jewish roots and upbringing (?)
although the version of the traditional Yigdal on offer is, shall we say,
unusual, and The Tel Aviv Ghetto Fighter's Song just happened to be
recorded in Taipei, Taiwan with the Bullshit Band. Elsewhere, the
National Steel of Let My People Go, the dervish acoustic of the Opener of
the Way and the Zappaesque vocals on Mahzel Means Good Luck provide some
sanity before the solo freakout on Ride of the Valkyries (yes!) and the
massive soundscape of Sh'ma, written and performed with Walter Horn.
Intense, unsettling, rewarding and, at times, hilarious (read the sleeve
notes), Lucas gets better all the time.
The Berkshire Eagle, December 10, 2000
"Improve the Shining Hour" in the Top 10 of 2000
Top CDs of 2000
by Seth Rogovoy
(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., December 10, 2000) The following list, like
those of years past, is not intended to reflect a cross-section of the
pop music of the past year. In putting together this list, I eschewed any
attempt at comprehensiveness and objectivity (whatever that is). Rather,
instead I indulged my increasingly quirky, oddball personal tastes. With
passage of time (otherwise known as aging), this listener looks
for surprise, originality and intelligence in music, in whatever form,
or genre it appears.
I’m sure by the time you read this I will have thought of a dozen
worthy albums of note. Think of this more as a snapshot of a musical
than as the last word on the year 2000 in music.
1. Phoebe Legere, Blue Curtain (Einstein): Legere’s
most recent work far surpasses her previous pop-art novelties. This time
out, the queen of the downtown avant-garde has constructed a veritable
contemporary symphony with spoken and sung text (a one-woman opera?)
of samples, found sounds, original keyboard composition, Native American
chant, free-form vocalese, programmed dance and electronic beats. A
meditation on the revolutionary role of the artist in the consumerist
society. An inquiry into gravity. A commentary on the media. A paean to
York City. All this, and jazz and pop too.
2. Erik Friedlander, Skin (Siam): Cellist/composer Erik
Friedlander’s avant-jazz compositions are alternately brash, dynamic,
mellifluous and haunting. Sometimes they’re all four at the same time.
Balkan melodies morph into street-funk and back, as Friedlander’s
quartet, Topaz, featuring saxophonist Andy Laster, toss around the focus.
The byplay between Friedlander and Laster is spectacular, so telepathic
often it’s hard to tell which is the cello and which is the sax. In
to Friedlander’s compositions, the group tackles Julius Hemphill, Charles
Mingus, Iranian pop diva Googoosh, Carlos Santana and Henry Mancini.
3. Paul Simon, You’re the One (Warner Bros.): His best
album since Graceland, Simon marries that landmark’s world-beat textures
his whimsical powers of observation and uncanny ear for old-fashioned
melody, on a set of songs that explore marriage, parenthood, aging,
religion, spirituality, death and racial politics. A marvelous comeback
return to form.
4. Gary Lucas, Improve the Shining Hour (Knitting
Factory) and Street of Lost Brothers (Tzadik): The 20 years’ worth of
and instrumentals that Lucas wrote and played on that are collected on
Improve the Shining Hour read like a subterranean history of rock and
cutting-edge music, with collaborations including Nick Cave, David
Captain Beefheart, Eric Mingus, Peter Stampfel, Mary Margaret O’Hara and
Spooky. What unites it all is Lucas’s sensibility, in which his guitar is
just a tool at best or an excuse at worst for the genius to play music.
Street of Lost Brothers is just one of several new works by Lucas, whose
strong writing and invention prove that his best days are not behind him,
but are in the present and perhaps yet to come.
5. Emmylou Harris, Red Dirt Girl (Nonesuch): Red Dirt
Girl proves not only that Wrecking Ball was no Daniel Lanois-influenced
fluke, but that Harris doesn’t need Lanois or that album’s lineup of
all-star songwriters who provided the material for one of the best albums
the past decade. This time out, Harris bears the lion’s share of the
songwriting duties and proves she stands shoulder to shoulder with the
of Neil Young, Lucinda Williams and Jimi Hendrix. And her voice has never
sounded better - she’s one of the best soul singers we have.
6. Roy Nathanson, Fire at Keaton’s Bar and Grill (Six
Degrees): The bartender is Blondie’s Debbie Harry, the storyteller is
Costello, and the arsonist in question is Richard Butler of the
Furs. But the visionary behind this piece of musical theater - a jazz
really - is avant-jazz saxophonist/composer Roy Nathanson, a co-founder
the Jazz Passengers. The musical style ranges from ballads to tango to
jazz-noir to street-funk, but the best piece is probably Nathanson’s
Suite 2,” in which a quartet of honking and squeaking saxophones paints a
7. John Zorn, Taboo and Exile (Tzadik): Ranging from
blissful, ambient mood music to blistering guitar-punk and everything in
between, the dozen tracks here are a tribute to John Zorn’s vision as a
composer. Zorn himself plays saxophone on only one track, but the album
functions as both a sampler of Zorn’s composition and of the downtown
instrumentalists who appear here, including violinist Mark Feldman,
guitarists Marc Ribot, Robert Quine and Fred Frith, percussionists Cyro
Baptista and Joey Baron, and bassists Chris Wood, Bill Laswell and Greg
8. Mr. Bungle, California (Warner Bros.): It’s
unfathomable that an album as weird as this one came out on a major
corporate label in the year 2000, and one might even take some solace
the fact—maybe there is faint hope for the “pop industry” after all.
Undoubtedly it’s partly because Mr. Bungle is fronted by
Mike Patton, who once led Top 10 act Faith No More. Song titles like
of Them Knew They Were Robots” and “Golem II: The Bionic Vapour Boy” hint
the weirdness within, in which Hawaiian music, surf rock, psychedelia,
prog-rock, jump blues and noise all fly by in the wink of an eye on songs
that bite the corporate hand that feeds them with such venom it’s enough
make one go back and take another close listen to Faith No More to see if
was all a subversive put-on.
9. Patti Smith, Gung Ho (Arista) and Lou Reed, Ecstasy
(Reprise): Neither of these are the artist’s best efforts ever (although
Smith’s comes closest), but they both rank near the top of these living
legend’s recorded efforts. With every new recording the likes of
poet-rockers Patti Smith and Lou Reed pave new ground, as they show how
rock with dignity into late-middle age.
10. The Other Quartet, 13 Pieces (Knitting Factory): On
the ensemble’s debut recording, the four musicians (saxophonist Ohad
trumpeter Russ Johnson, guitarist Jim Hershman, drummer Michael Sarin)
comprise the Other Quartet avoid all the cliches that haunt jazz
in spite of original material that is often recognizably blues, jazz,
and ballads. It helps that they’re all virtuoso improvisers and
but it has more to do with an all-ensemble sensibility which incorporates
humor, melody, and classical-based dynamics and arrangements, especially
a version of Elliott Carter’s “Canon for Three.”
The best of the rest: Johnny Cash, American III: Solitary Man (American);
Medeski Martin & Wood, Tonic (Blue Note); Stone Coyotes, Situation Out of
Control (Red Cat); Steely Dan, Two Against Nature, (Giant); The Nields,
You Lived Here You’d Be Home Now (Zoe); The Kennedys, Evolver (Zoe);
Madonna, Music (Maverick); Steve Earle, Transcendental Blues
(E-Squared/Artemis); John Lurie, The Legendary Marvin Pontiac: Greatest
(Strange and Beautiful); Mario Pavone/Nu Trio, Remembering Thomas
Also Richard Shindell, Somewhere Near Paterson (Signature Sounds); Meg
Hutchinson, Against the Grey (LRH); The Jayhawks, Smile (Columbia);
Daylights, Electric Rosary (Liquid City); Pharaoh’s Daugher, Out of the
Reeds (Knitting Factory); Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars, Di
Kapelye (Piranha); June Tabor, A Quiet Eye (Green Linnet); Masada, Live
Sevilla 2000 (Tzadik); Lauri des Marais/Erik Lindgren, Stimuli: Stories
Sound Volume 1 (SFZ).
[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on Dec. 15, 2000.
Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2000. All rights reserved.]
Jewish Week, December, 2000
Review of "Street of Lost Brothers"
Gary Lucas: "Street of Lost Brothers" (Tzadik)
Rating: 5 stars
One of the bad boys of
Jewish music, Lucas used to play with Captain Beefheart and, as the
Captain himself once said, "the man can play some guitar." This is his
second outing on Tzadik, a followup to the inspired, wacky "Busy Being
Born," and it pushes the envelope even farther, but with astounding
results. From the rock march "Yigdal" (don't laugh, it works), through a
series of brilliant improvisations that run the gamut from delta blues
to a deranged Hawaiian-cum-country "Ride of the Valkyries," Lucas puts
his virtuousity to spectacularly expressive use. But the masterpiece of
this set—worth the price of the CD by itself—is an 11-minute
"Sh'ma," a stunning adventure in electric guitar dynamics, feedback and
reverb aesthetics that combines the protean drive of Hendrix with the
brute force of Glenn Branca. If you can handle the volume, this is a
The Village Voice, November 8 - 14, 2000
Review of Live Performance
By Richard Gehr
"The Sound of the City" section
The Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in the BAM Opera House and the
of Hou Hsiao-hsien in the Rose Cinemas were resonating right along with
guitarist Gary Lucas's National steel guitar when he performed tunes
associated with famous Chinese "song-girls" Chow Hsuan and Bai Kwong at
BAMcafé last Friday. Hsuan (in the '30s) and Kwong (in the '50s) were
stars who have been compared to Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich,
respectively. Lucas, however, unleashes their music from its Asian
and brings it all back home to the blues.
Harriet Tubman guitarist Brandan Ross, sitting beside me, remarked how
Lucas's open tunings (all songs performed in original keys, guaranteed)
nearly transformed his guitar into another instrument altogether.
Kwong's sultry alto—they didn't dub her "the Magnetic Low Voice" for
nothing—contrasts wonderfully with Hsuan's more stereotypical
girlish-Chinese-pop timbre. The Austrian singer Gisburg here gave a
Dietrichian spin to wispy, melancholy Kwong numbers like "The Wall," "I
for Your Return," and "The Moon in the Street." (Chinese singer and
Celest Chong, scheduled to limn such Hsuan hits as "Songstress on the
Heaven," was stuck in Singapore, alas, and didn't make the gig.)
Midcentury Chinese pop music soaked up Western influences, particularly
swing-band sound. Lucas, both alone and accompanied by drummer Jonathan
and acoustic bassist Ernie Brooks, added yet another layer of occidental
influence by giving almost all these melodramatic melodies an earthy,
ry-blues bent, and ending most of them with a big, signature harmonic
Hsuan went insane during the '50s, while Kwong specialized in portraying
prostitutes, making these populist outsiders a natural for the
category-defying Lucas, who has already recorded these elegant
hemisphere-crossing sounds for an upcoming release titled The Edge of
You won't get much closer to paradise than that.
Uncut (UK), December 2000
Review of "Level the Playing Field: Early HurlyBurly 1988-1994"
By David Stubbs
Anthology of ex-Beefheart man's best work
4 STARS...Gary Lucas was one of the last musicians to play guitar with
Captain Beefheart before Van Vliet gave it all up for his oil painting.
This pedigree is reflected in his playing, a combination of fury and
finesse, a chainsaw used to make ice sculptures.
Solo efforts include covers of the late Arthur Russell's "Let's Go
Swimming", an audacious segue of Miles Davis' "Jack Johnson" and
Suicide's "Ghost Rider", as well as more glimmering, ambient excursions
like "Dream of a Russian Princess". As well as collaborations with
Woodentop Rolo McGinty and Jon Langford, there's a rare outing for Mary
Margaret O'Hara on "Poison Tree", a typical piece of fragile dementia.
Also recommended is Lucas' latest work, Street of Lost Brothers,
another mazy work drawing on his Jewish heritage.
Time Out New York, November 2-9, 2000
Pick for Live Performance
GARY LUCAS: The Edge of Heaven
BAMCafe, November 3, 2000
As evidenced on last year's fine retrospective compilation Improve the
Shining Hour, guitarist GARY LUCAS is probably better known for his sideman work (with
Captain Beefheart, Jeff Buckley, Nick Cave and countless others) than for
his own maverick concepts. His latest one, a reevaluation of mid-20th
century Chinese pop, is the centerpiece of his rustic, dreamy new disc,
THE EDGE OF HEAVEN: GARY LUCAS PLAYS THE MUSIC OF CHOW HSUAN AND BAI
KWONG. It's where his blissed-out steel-guitar musings take on a charm
that has everything to do with the predominating melodic simplicity.
Lucas may be the only cat alive who knew that Chinese music and the blues
had something in common.
Amazon.com, October 2000
Review of "Street of Lost Brothers"
By Jerry McCulley
Too often the title "guitar god" is bestowed upon musicians whose focused dedication has also turned
them into one-trick ponies. Then there's the real deal, a.k.a. Gary Lucas, a musician whose sheer
innovative skills are matched only by his restless stylistic explorations and cross-genre instincts. Lucas
has contributed adventurous fretwork to a dizzying array of projects, from Captain Beefheart to
soundtracks to singers such as Joan Osborne, Nick Cave, and Jeff Buckley. Indeed, it's often hard to
believe this album (his second for John Zorn's Tzadik label) showcases just one guitarist, ranging as it
does from occasional Hebrew folklore schtick ("Yigdal," "Mahzel Means Good Luck,") to loving and
unexpected tributes to loopy personal musical favorites ("I Kill You for Nothing [Marx Brothers
Medley]"), languorous, atmospheric avant-garde excursions ("Sh'ma"), and even Wagner's "Ride of the
Valkyries." Utilizing a stunning arsenal of techniques that range from acoustic-based open tunings and
brisk fingerpicking to noisy avant-garde electric and slide work, Lucas never lets his tasteful, daring
instincts overwhelm his material.
Magic! #43 (France), July/August 2000
Review of "Improve the Shining Hour"
By Renaud Paulik
George Lucas would have made a Jedi knight of him...Indeed, Gary Lucas
(no official family link with the star director) handles guitars like
others do light sabers. Far from any pyrotechnical exhibition—which is
always to be feared on guitar players' records, Improve the Shining Hour
actually is a gathering of unlikely collaborations and a survey of 20
years of musical activism. Former Captain Beefheart's sideman, Lucas also
played with Nick Cave, David Johansen, and Elli Medeiros. And, more
recently, Jeff Buckley (whom we miss the presence of here) and Tanger on
their latest album. Thus Gary Lucas has raised the interest of great
artists and one just needs to listen to this Rare Lumiere to be
convinced.The six-string man's delicacy is revealed at every measure, in
turn bluesy or airy: "Oat Hate", "In a Forest", and "Follow". Then he
gets mad and mistreats his instrument on "Her Eyes are a Blue Million
Miles" and "Flavor Bud Living", while Don "Beefheart" Van Vliet belts out
his strange poetry. In the same blood-red vein, Nick Cave' s bad seed
offers an enraged reading with a frenetic dobro on background ("And the
Ass Saw the Angel"). "Improve the Shining Hour": the best way to
apprehend Gary "Skywalker" Lucas's work.
Les Inrockuptibles, August 22, 2000
Review of "Improve the Shining Hour"
By Richard Robert
"Thanks to his enlightening work for Jeff Buckley (he has composed
"Grace" and "Mojo Pin") and his remarkable appearances with Tanger, Gary
Lucas is slowly coming out of the mists that kept him hidden. Engaged in
countless adventures, this wandering guitarist is more than a mere
mercenary, ready to engage himself in any army. Always on the move, never
short of curiosity or kinetic energy, he is a brave who finds his honor
in not choosing any side. As a child, the native New Yorker got his first
emotions with blues, rock 'n roll, old soundtracks, 1930's Chinese
romances, and traditional Jewish music. Trained at the tough Captain
Beefheart school (1980-82), Lucas is a chameleon who never forgets to
affirm his colors: a guitar sound (both electric and acoustic) investing
every note, an inspired use of the pedals and steel, and above all
writing and playing at multiple levels of understanding. This
compilation—on which one can hear Nick Cave (in his fast-talking
number), David Johansen's gruff voice, Elli Medeiros' bubbly singing and
the deep throat of Lucas himself—offers an eclectic inventory of 20
years of exchanges as well as lonely wanderings. There are, among others,
a few adventures under Captain Beefheart's flag, nice folk songs,
penetrating instrumentals, and ambient improvisations ("Golgotha", with
DJ Spooky), a ballad spiced by the former Bongos member Richard Barone,
and a scary canticle ("Judgement", consumed beside a vociferating Eric
Mingus). A mosaic portrait of a puzzling artist, "Improve the Shining
Hour" also is an excellent way of exploring American music in detail,
from its more exhibited parts to its more mysterious hidden sides.
Folk Roots, July 2000
Improve the Shining Hour
Knitting Factory records KFW 265
By Ian Kearey
If there's a guitar style that Gary Lucas can't play it hasn't been
this compilation is a brief overview of Lucas' career from 1980, and is a
revelation to those who know him only as a one-time Captain Beefheart
Of course Beefheart is featured here, with Lucas as part of his band, but
the amazing solo Flavor Bud Living, needing at least eight fingers on
and at least two separate brains, that really makes the collaboration.
In among the free-form, improvisary stuff for which Lucas is well known
with Nick Cave giving readings from his novel) come the stranger
Lucas' own strummed Coming Clean, with shades of John Martyn; haunting
with David Johanssen's (sic) vocals on Spiders Web; lunacy of the good
kind with Peter Stampfel on Astro Boy (a paean to a Japanese cartoon
plus his unique acoustic takes on Floyd Ming's Indian War Whoop and
Judgment(both familiar from the Harry Smith Anthology).
Lucas's music could never be called comfortable, and the sheer variety of
and moods here demands full attention and a degree of giving from the
but its well worth the effort to gather an index of possibilities for the
OOR, May 27, 2000
Review of "Improve the Shining Hour"
By Jacob Haagsma
"Man can play guitar". Captain Beefheart compliments Gary Lucas,
who has just brought 'Flavor Bud Living' to a great finish. Lucas
owns a very interesting address book: the cover of "Improve the
Shining Hour" even sports a picture of Lucas with ex-president
Nixon plus wife. But of more interest are the friends whose musical
contributions can be found on this CD, and there is plenty of great
music to be found on this collection of live recordings, home tapes,
film scores and assorted freakery. Beefheart fans will drool over the
introduction to 'Flavor Bud Living' and the menacing vocals of 'Her
Eyes are a Million Miles'; These are the oldest recordings, dating
aproximately twenty years ago, when Lucas had just joined his
hero's magic band. On top of that we find him working with Nick
Cave (a live recording at the 'wacky Dutch avant-garde festival 'Ein
Abend in Wien'), David Johansen, Elli Medeiros, Mary Margaret
O'Hara, DJ Spooky, Eric (son of Charles) Mingus and more.
Missing from the list is Jeff Buckley, who used to sing in an early
incarnation of Lucas' band 'Gods & Monsters'. Lucas plays slide
guitar like the best pre-war bluesguitarist, but finds himself equally
at home in electronic soundscapes. Moreover, his more song
orientated material sometimes to even lean towards folk. Evidently,
'Man can play guitar' in many many ways. A beautiful introduction
into the world of a very special musician.
Volkskrant, May 5th 2000
Acoustic Lucas Goes Electric
By Remco Takken
Electronics and the blues, tradition and experiment: the paradoxical universe of former Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas.
Lucas is widely known for his solo performances, alternating old acoustic folk blues and country blues with electronic
soundscapes. He has been playing with Gods and Monsters for at least as long, a power trio in the classic guitar, bass and
Anyone expecting an evening of Beefheartesque music at Paradiso or a solo performance with accompaniment was proved wrong.
Gods and Monsters performed mainly psychedelic rock and group improvisations in the best Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream
The jazzrock of Miles Davis' Jack Johnson thundered past and featured a slashing wah wah solo by Lucas. Next, drummer
Jonathan Kane let himself go on the snaredrum in Ghostrider, which segued into the Davis composition, as on the untitled debut
CD released in 1992.
A novel trio arrangement of Hitchcock's Psycho exploited the contrast between complicated 'noise' and silence to great effect. For
the first time in his career, Lucas was supported by a drummer who followed him in all of his idiosyncrasies and added suspense
to the long instrumental sections as well.
During Kane's single drum solo, bass player Ernie Brooks played a simple chord line to keep the drummer in check. Brooks could
not keep up with his colleagues' powerplay but he did ensure that Gods and Monsters remained a true rock band, with clearly
audible chord structures.
Lucas' own song material is based on simple chords sequences and does not allow much room for harmonic complexity. Guitar
freaks may therefore have been somewhat disappointed by the simple pop songs. Lucas did not resort to pomposity. Instead, he
remained true to his great love for finger picking and, as in his solo performances, unsettling guitar effects.
Lucas' solo CD Evangeline features a guitar standing midway between acoustic and electric in an extraordinarily beautiful way.
Lucas has successfully managed to achieve this effect: his acoustic Gibson combined a deep sound box sound with an
extremely heavy touch.
In the encore Gods and Monsters surprised all with the steaming, note by note rendition of Albert King blues, i.e. electric but
without electronic changes in style. Gary Lucas proved with this number that his spot-on references to the blues tradition have
matured as has his own eclectic style.