Gary Lucas   reviews  

Live Review by Guardian writer John L. Walters


Gary Lucas
The Spitz, London

**** (four stars)

Wed 10 Sept 2003

With a leather hat that obscures his eyes and a squared-off grin, wiry guitarist Gary Lucas looks like something straight out of a Robert Crumb comic. In fact some of the audience seem to have wandered in from the same frames, but this is no stoned guitar be-in. Lucas is a one-off—possibly the most authentic and entertaining link yet found between Leonard Bernstein, Captain Beefheart and Jeff Buckley—and a creative interpreter of guitar music from a diverse range of sources.

There's plenty of skewed Americana, for a start. And a brief guest appearance from Alabama 3 (famed for their Sopranos theme). Also: dissident rock'n'roll, bluegrass, bottleneck blues, classical transcriptions and reverberative ambient instrumentals, on one occasion deftly sequeing Kraftwerk's Autobahn into Wagner's The Ride of the Valkyries.

Spitalfields' Spitz is the perfect, intimate venue for an improvising soloist like Lucas, though he makes enough noise to fill a concert hall, enhancing his arsenal of electric, acoustic and National steel guitars with a few effects boxes and pedals and traditional amplifier feedback. His version of Amazing Grace recalls Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner.

Sometimes, as on his version of Abdullah Ibrahim's Bra Joe from Kilimanjaro, he'll set up a bass riff, loop it and play over the top. Other composers given the Lucas treatment include Robert Johnson (Hell Hound on my Trail), John Fahey, Smetana (the Moldau) and Dvorak.

For a forthcoming gig to celebrate the 14th anniversary of Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution, Lucas has adapted the first and third movements from Dvorak's string quartet in F. Though Lucas reads music (he played the guitar part in Bernstein's Mass while at Yale) he transcribed the Czech composer's pieces for National steel guitar solely by ear.

It occasionally feels as if Lucas is working right up to the limits of his (considerable) technique, which makes for risky, exciting performances. Originals such as Fata Morgana and Lalee's Kin (created for an HBO documentary) fall more easily under his fingers, but he still invests them with barnstorming energy. There's an air of genial experiment, as he visibly dithers about which guitar to pick up, which piece to play next. Playing solo is a tough gig. But Lucas never loses his audience, who listen, hushed while his bottleneck freewheels across the strings, and then holler or whoop with delight as each number subsides to a gracious halt.

By John L. Walters

The Wall Street Journal, May 6, 2003

Guitarist Gary Lucas Blends Chinese Pop With the Blues
By Jim Fusilli

(Click here to see an Adobe Acrobat PDF image of the article, including a cool caricature!)

Gary Lucas
Indigo (Harmonia Mundi)

On his latest album, "The Edge of Heaven" (Indigo), guitarist Gary Lucas, who's best known for his work with the avant-garde rock composer Captain Beefheart, explores mid-20th century Chinese pop music, specifically the songs of Bai Kwong and Chow Hsuan, vocalists who were based in Shanghai before World War II and remained musical icons in the region for decades.

The definition of a cross-cultural exercise, "The Edge of Heaven" is an extraordinary work. Mr. Lucas's sophisticated, hybrid style on guitar, which relies on open tunings, string bending, blues finger-picking and slide, seems to strip away the gloss from the music, leaving its emotional core exposed. When he's joined on six songs by vocalists Celeste Chong, a TV star in Singapore, or Gisburg, the Austrian vocalist, the music is deeply moving—tender-hearted, romantic and mature; sugary yet not at all cloying.

Its effect on Western ears is not unlike what Mr. Lucas experienced in 1976 when the then 22-year-old Yale English major moved to Taipei to join his father Murray's import business by day and play music by night.

"I had only a vague idea of that music," he recalls. '"I mean, what did I know from Chinese culture? But this was a complete revelation to me. There was a sweetness to the singing, an innocence, and it evoked a fantasy of pre-war Shanghai. I was completely spellbound."

The music, says Mr. Lucas, has elements of Chinese folk, U.S. western-swing music, Billie Holiday-style blues and Broadway show tunes.

"Shanghai was a cosmopolitan city before the war," he says, "with a lot of Americans, particularly Jewish-American musicians. These guys introduced people to jazz and swing and klezmer. Chinese pop eventually reflected all of that; the music of the period, at least in Shanghai, was sort of the Chinese take on jazz and blues."

It wasn't until almost 20 years later that Mr. Lucas got around to playing the music he'd heard back in Taipei. By then, he had come home to New York, performed with Captain Beefheart, Jeff Buckley, Lou Reed, Patti Smith and Joan Osborne, and developed a reputation as a strikingly original guitarist. Some of his best work can be heard on the recently released "Operators Are Standing By: The Essential Gary Lucas 1988-1996" (Knitting Factory).

His gig with Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band shaped his approach to music and indirectly influenced "The Edge of Heaven."

"I thought he was the most compelling conceptualist I'd ever heard," Mr. Lucas says of Captain Beefheart. "He'd taken the structure of the jazz and blues and rebuilt it like no one else had. To play his songs, I had to relearn the guitar. It was pretty rigorous training."

Spurred on by what he had to learn to play Beefheart's compositions, Mr. Lucas developed a knack for rearranging other challenging music for solo guitar—he's reworked Wagner, Sun Ra and traditional Jewish music. When friends asked him to play the music of Bai Kwong and Chow Hsuan at their wedding in New York's Chinatown, he agreed and set out to build arrangements based on the pentatonic scales essential to Chinese pop and American blues.

Without using sheet music of the original compositions, Mr. Lucas assembled the songs harmonically and decided to approach them as if they were country blues while remaining true to the music's ethnicity. It worked, he says.

"The bride's mother, who flew in from Hong Kong, had tears in her eyes," he recalls. Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth was among the guests at the reception, and he encouraged his fellow guitarist to play the material in concert. Mr. Lucas added a few Chinese tunes to his repertoire and included two of the songs on his '97 release, "Evangeline." He recorded the new album in 2000 with members of his "Gods and Monsters" band, adding Ms. Chong and Gisburg for vocals.

From the outset of "The Edge of Heaven," Mr. Lucas seems intent on making the music of Chow Hsuan and Bai Kwong accessible to Western audiences by reinforcing its affinity with American country blues. The opening number, "Old Dreams," is a melange of guitar loops and'delicate notes tapped on the strings before opening to a reflective folk tune reminiscent of the music of Appalachia; later, "Where My Home Is," a solo number for electric slide guitar, sounds like something Muddy Waters might've played down in Rolling Fork, Miss. "I Wait for Your Return" is offered as an easy flowing country ballad.

When either of the two female vocalists enter, "The Edge of Heaven" becomes sublime. Gisburg, who Mr. Lucas met in the New York Downtown music scene (and is, Mr. Lucas says, "the only Caucasian I knew who speaks Cantonese"), has a smoky voice, steady and assertive, while Ms. Chong's birdlike vocals effortlessly soar into the upper register. Their complimentary styles bring out the romance in the songs Mr. Lucas has adapted, so much so that translation of the lyrics is unnecessary. Thus, Mr. Lucas's poignant and daring cross-cultural hybrid works not only as a homage to Bai Kwong and Chow Hsuan, but as a tribute to the tenderness of the human heart.

Mr. Fusilli last wrote for the Journal on Patty Larkin.

Global Rhythm, May 2003

Gary Lucas Breaks Out the Good China
By Jeff Tamarkin

Review of "The Edge of Heaven"
Gary Lucas
Indigo (Harmonia Mundi) LBLC 2582

Lucas is a virtuoso, but never on The Edge of Heaven, despite having collected a pile of accolades in the past for his dexterous guitar work, does he flaunt his chops. This is a tribute in the strictest sense, permeated by love and beauty. If there is indeed a heaven, it probably sounds like this.

Los Angeles Times, May 4, 2003

Gary Lucas - "Mesmerizing"

"The Edge of Heaven" (Indigo Label Bleu LBLC 2582)

Rock guitarist Gary Lucas (Captain Beefheart, Gods and Monsters) became enamored of Chinese music when he lived and played in Taipei in the late '70s. "The Edge of Heaven," subtitled "Mid-Century Chinese Pop," is primarily devoted to songs associated with two stars of the period - Bai Kwong and Chow Hsuan. Half the tracks are vocals, performed by sweet-voiced, authentic-sounding Celest Chong and the darker-toned Gisburg; the balance feature Lucas' virtuosic playing on acoustic, electric and steel guitars. And the results are mesmerizing, an intimate glimpse into a musical culture that was both deeply traditional and outward-looking, rendered in a fashion that makes the music more contemporary while preserving its essential roots. Cutomer Review for "Operators Are Standing By"

5 out of 5 stars Essential Listening: Gary Lucas, February 23, 2003
Reviewer: jay narvaez from California
Gary Lucas surprises me every time. Operators are Standing By: The Essential Gary Lucas 1988-1996 is no exception. This is the artist in a feisty mood, and there's never a boring moment on the CD.

Fans of Lucas will find favorites culled from his previous releases on the Enemy label. There are also some new tracks, including a down and dirty arrangement of Freddy King and Sonny Thompson's "The Stumble," a quirky play on the theme from "Eastenders," and an impromptu version of "Volga Boatmen."

Earlier compilations like "Level the Playing Field," and "Improve the Shining Hour" reveal Lucas' lyrical streak. Operators Are Standing By has its share of sweet stuff in "I want to play your guitar" (sung by Sonya Cohen), the playful "Children's March" (by Percy Grainger) and one of my favorites, "Fool's Cap."

On the other hand, the surreal cover art by Bonnie Lucas should give you some warning. You'll find an acerbic and cutting edge to this collection of tracks; the music reminds me of George Grosz's acid-etched portraits of pre-WWII Berlin. Very timely, if you ask me. You'll hear this in good measure on the very first track, "They Can't Believe He's Risen Again," on "It's Happening Again," (which ends with what sounds like the highjacking of the band), and on the warped glee-club harmonies of "Poison I.V. League."

Lucas excells at chillingly prophetic lyrics and ironic commentary on the foibles of human nature. But even the instrumental tracks, for example, "The Nightmare of History" (perfect accompaniment for some demented Merrie Melodies cartoon) have a biting language of their own. Combine Lucas' lyrics with his brilliant and unpredictable guitar playing (check out "Cantina") on electric, acoustic and steel, vocals by Sonya Cohen, Rolo McGinty (Woodentops), and Jon Langford (Mekons), and you have a potent brew for the benighted soul.

This music will get those synapses firing again. If you like music that rocks hard, AND kick-starts your brain cells - this CD is for you.

Jay Narvaez

Macao Daily News, February 2003

Guitarist With 1,000 Ideas
translated by Mike Lee

(Click here to see an image of the untranslated review.)

I seldom listen to Chinese songs. It's not because I only like all the western stuff. Actually, i don't like the songs themselves. For example, I'm pretty scared by the high-pitch dominated noisy music and singing in the traditional Chinese operas. The music makes me feel like being in hell. If the lyrics were kept but with modified melodies and arrangements, and less high- to medium-pitch instruments but more bass instruments, I might accept the music. However, it's not the traditional opera arts anymore. In today's Chinese pop music, I think there is not much worth to listen to. I then seldom touch it. But there is an era of Chinese pop music that I really like. It's the time of the songs in 1930s to 1940s by female singers.

The first old song appealing my heart is "Wicked Woman" Bai Kwong's "I Wait for Your Return". Then, I've been deeply in love with "Golden Voice' Chow Hsuan. I once bought her Japan-made CD boxset from a second-hand CD store in Hong Kong and cherished it. (I regret that I've sold it in my poor time...) When I listen to their songs, I feel the same when I listen to the Columbia-era Billie Holiday. They all take me back to the old world decades ago. So nice.

Of course, those songstresses have already left the world. But their songs keeps attacting music lovers in different ages. There are even modern singers re-interpreting their famous works. However, there are rarely re-works better than the originals. But I've found a guitarist who can turn those classic works into an alternative style. The re-interpretations themselves are not only brilliant subtle music playing, a wonderful merge of old and new, but also an appetizer to bring me into the world of old Chinese pop songs again.

Once coined "the guitarist of 1,000 ideas" by New York Times, Gary Lucas has a history of nearly 30 years in the music business after his professional debut performance in Leonard Bernstein's Mass premierre in Europe in 1973. He has released over 10 solo records. He also collaborated with Captain Beefheart, Jeff Buckley and other prominent musicians. He often got critical acclaims by following his diverse creative roads of mainstream rock, alternative avant-garde and ethnic-oriented genres.

This year Harmonia Mundi has re-released his 2001 record The Edge Of Heaven. Thirteen Chinese songs from 1930s to 1940s include "Songstress on the Edge of Heaven", "I Wait for Your Return" and "Night in Shanghai". Gary applied his excellent guitar playing and effect treatments with the contributions by European art singer Gisburg and Singapore pop singer Celest Chong in 6 of the songs. This is really tasty with 2 very different elements combined (melancholy feelings and avant-garde detachments). Cutomer Review for "The Edge of Heaven"

5 out of 5 stars Western Hands, Eastern Voices, One Heart, February 3, 2003
Reviewer: Chris Dee from New York, New York USA
If you listen to music almost constantly as I do, you come across something like this every five years or so: something that has the combination of virtuosity, strangeness, passion, intelligence and delicacy that makes a work of art not just beautiful, but beautiful in a new way. I have never written a review for Amazon before but I feel that I should do what I can to get this record into as many people's hands as possible.

What kind of music is it? I hope that I can describe it in a way that doesn't make it sound like a stunt, or some kind of insipid musical tourism, which it absolutely is not. This is a guitar record, with voice on almost half of the tracks, and a drummer and bassist in the background on four. The songs are Lucas's arrangements for fingerstyle guitar (electric, acoustic, National Steel) of Chinese pop ballads of the mid-20th century. Seven of the tracks are instrumental; the other six feature a female vocalist: in three cases Celest Chong, in the other three Gisbourg. The vocals are in Chinese. Are you still with me? Please, please give this music a chance. Some of the arrangements are, I imagine, close to the flavor of the original recordings (which I have not heard); some are given more of a blues inflection (even electric slide on one), and sound more familiar.

If you know Gary Lucas you will not be surprised by the jaw-dropping strength and dexterity of his playing here but you may not be prepared for how achingly beautiful and "inside" it is. If you are really familiar with his work you may have heard instrumental versions of this music on two earlier albums: "The Wall" and "Songstress on the Edge of Heaven" on Evangeline and a live version of the latter song on @Paradiso. Those performances are highlights of their respective albums, but this CD makes them seem like rehearsals, which is what they are. This is not "blues guitar meets China" or any other kind of stupid musical hybrid. This is about the deep level at which the emotionality of Eastern and Western music is the same, an idea which surprises on first hearing but which should really surprise no one, and about the melting away of that surprise to reveal the core of calmness and beauty inside it. I love this record, and you won't be sorry if you go a little out of your way to hear it.

Los Angeles Daily News, U-Entertainment Section, January 14, 2003

Lucas makes Magic with Chinese pop
By Fred Shuster
Music Writer

(Click here to see the review on the Los Angeles Daily News website.)

How musical voyager Gary Lucas came to record a stunningly gorgeous album of midcentury Chinese pop is too complicated to explain here. It's enough to say "The Edge of Heaven" might be one of the prettiest things you'll hear all year.

The disc, released today, contains lush arrangements of songs made famous by celebrated Shanghai divas Chow Hsuan and Bai Kwong, with contributions from singers Gisburg and Celest Chong and support from Lucas' band Gods and Monsters. The packaging is as exquisite as the music within.

Lucas, well-known for his guitar work with Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band in the early 1980s, has earned a worldwide following for his intriguing forays into most every style under the sun. He has contributed songs and guitar for the major-label debuts of both Jeff Buckley and Joan Osborne, and "Songs to No One (1991-92)," a set of early collaborations between the guitarist and the late Buckley, was named one of the best records of 2002 by Brit magazine Uncut.

Lucas (visit performs around the world, composes scores for film and TV and makes his own records. His version of "Songstress on the Edge of Heaven," originally a popular song in 1937 in China, will be heard in the three-part Bill Moyers series, "Becoming American: The Chinese Experience," which begins airing March 25 on PBS.

Lucas will take part in a Magic Band reunion in Britain this spring, followed by a "strict re-creation" of Beefheart material at UCLA's "All Tomorrow's Parties" extravaganza, he said. We reached him at home in New York.

Q: For anyone who immediately imagines Peking Opera or chirping Britney wanna-bes when they think of Chinese music, your album will be a surprise.

Peking Opera can be harsh on the Western ear because the singing is so nasal. My singers, Gisburg and Celest Chong, have very sweet voices. They sing on half the record, and the rest is instrumental. The music, which was originally recorded between the 1930s and the 1950s, is an incredibly beautiful blend of swing, big-band music and traditional Chinese instrumentation and melodies.

Q: The emotion of the songs is clear even to foreign ears. What was your reaction when you first encountered it in the '70s?

I recognized the deep ache of Billie Holiday and the cartoon zaniness of those Betty Boop soundtracks from the '30s—with a decidedly Chinese flavor. I looked at this music as little treasures that nobody knew about. I urge people to check out the originals.

Q: So you were into this stuff when you worked with Beefheart?

He and the other guys in the band loved this music. He would have these songs played on the sound system before he went on stage. I really enjoyed turning people on to the original albums over the years. I love all sorts of music, and that's probably my strength.

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