Gary Lucas   reviews  

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 Suicide’s "Ghostrider"...).

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 best 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 the passage of time (otherwise known as aging), this listener looks increasingly for surprise, originality and intelligence in music, in whatever form, style or genre it appears.

I’m sure by the time you read this I will have thought of a dozen other worthy albums of note. Think of this more as a snapshot of a musical moment 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?) built 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 New 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 versatile quartet, Topaz, featuring saxophonist Andy Laster, toss around the focus. The byplay between Friedlander and Laster is spectacular, so telepathic that often it’s hard to tell which is the cello and which is the sax. In addition 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 to 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 and return to form.

4. Gary Lucas, Improve the Shining Hour (Knitting Factory) and Street of Lost Brothers (Tzadik): The 20 years’ worth of songs 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 Johansen, Captain Beefheart, Eric Mingus, Peter Stampfel, Mary Margaret O’Hara and DJ 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 of 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 likes 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 Elvis Costello, and the arsonist in question is Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs. But the visionary behind this piece of musical theater - a jazz opera, really - is avant-jazz saxophonist/composer Roy Nathanson, a co-founder of 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 “Fire Suite 2,” in which a quartet of honking and squeaking saxophones paints a blazing furnace.

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 Cohen.

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 from the fact—maybe there is faint hope for the “pop industry” after all. Undoubtedly it’s partly because Mr. Bungle is fronted by singer-songwriter Mike Patton, who once led Top 10 act Faith No More. Song titles like “None of Them Knew They Were Robots” and “Golem II: The Bionic Vapour Boy” hint at 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 to make one go back and take another close listen to Faith No More to see if it 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 to 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 Talmor, trumpeter Russ Johnson, guitarist Jim Hershman, drummer Michael Sarin) who comprise the Other Quartet avoid all the cliches that haunt jazz quartets, in spite of original material that is often recognizably blues, jazz, Latin and ballads. It helps that they’re all virtuoso improvisers and composers, but it has more to do with an all-ensemble sensibility which incorporates humor, melody, and classical-based dynamics and arrangements, especially on 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, If 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 Hits (Strange and Beautiful); Mario Pavone/Nu Trio, Remembering Thomas (Knitting Factory). Also Richard Shindell, Somewhere Near Paterson (Signature Sounds); Meg Hutchinson, Against the Grey (LRH); The Jayhawks, Smile (Columbia); Living Daylights, Electric Rosary (Liquid City); Pharaoh’s Daugher, Out of the Reeds (Knitting Factory); Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars, Di Shikere Kapelye (Piranha); June Tabor, A Quiet Eye (Green Linnet); Masada, Live in Sevilla 2000 (Tzadik); Lauri des Marais/Erik Lindgren, Stimuli: Stories in 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 must-buy record.

The Village Voice, November 8 - 14, 2000

Review of Live Performance
By Richard Gehr

"The Sound of the City" section

China Dolls

The Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan in the BAM Opera House and the films 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 film stars who have been compared to Judy Garland and Marlene Dietrich, respectively. Lucas, however, unleashes their music from its Asian moorings 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. Likewise, 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 breathy Dietrichian spin to wispy, melancholy Kwong numbers like "The Wall," "I Wait for Your Return," and "The Moon in the Street." (Chinese singer and actress Celest Chong, scheduled to limn such Hsuan hits as "Songstress on the Edge of Heaven," was stuck in Singapore, alas, and didn't make the gig.) Midcentury Chinese pop music soaked up Western influences, particularly the swing-band sound. Lucas, both alone and accompanied by drummer Jonathan Kane and acoustic bassist Ernie Brooks, added yet another layer of occidental influence by giving almost all these melodramatic melodies an earthy, count ry-blues bent, and ending most of them with a big, signature harmonic chime.

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 Heaven.

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., 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 invented: 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 guitarist. Of course Beefheart is featured here, with Lucas as part of his band, but its the amazing solo Flavor Bud Living, needing at least eight fingers on each hand and at least two separate brains, that really makes the collaboration. In among the free-form, improvisary stuff for which Lucas is well known (particularly with Nick Cave giving readings from his novel) come the stranger blues/folk songs: Lucas' own strummed Coming Clean, with shades of John Martyn; haunting National Steel with David Johanssen's (sic) vocals on Spiders Web; lunacy of the good old Holy Modal kind with Peter Stampfel on Astro Boy (a paean to a Japanese cartoon character); plus his unique acoustic takes on Floyd Ming's Indian War Whoop and Sister Mary Nelson's Judgment(both familiar from the Harry Smith Anthology).

Lucas's music could never be called comfortable, and the sheer variety of styles and moods here demands full attention and a degree of giving from the listener, but its well worth the effort to gather an index of possibilities for the guitar.

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 drums line-up.

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 tradition.

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.