Gary Lucas   reviews  

Westzeit (Germany), 12/2004

Review of "The Universe of Absence"
Gary Lucas and Jozef Van Wissem

by Klaus Hubner

4 Stars

Two who seem to have discovered each other. The mix of steel guitar (Lucas) and lute (van Wissem) produces a music whose equal is difficult to find. Between the two different styles and the two different players, they continually come up with melodies never played before and surprising sound elements. The Universe of Absence takes us (consciously?) in a false direction. The Renaissance music particularly favored by van Wissem is, really, absent. Yet it does color everything else going on. Because Josef van Wissem understands well how to reproduce the characteristic sound of the middle ages. And Gary Lucas blends in his country influenced guitar sound. "Tomorrow Never Knows" by Lennon/McCartney makes for a disorienting end point: the piece seems to have anticipated the duo's entire cosmos by decades.

Heaven (Holland), 12/2004

Review of "The Universe of Absence"
Gary Lucas and Jozef Van Wissem

By Holly Moors


Neo-Psychedelic Masterpiece

American guitar wizard Gary Lucas (former Beefheart member) and the Dutch lute player Jozef van Wissem found each other in the late 90's. The master of the medieval lute and the experimentalist hit it off, and their latest cd is a pearl of improvisation and psychedelica. As a matter of fact, it's remarkable that 60's psychedelica, a style you'd expect to sound dated, gets a revival, and it finds its first highlight on this cd. The gentlemen start by spreading out a wonderfully rippling soundscape which intrigues from beginning to end. Besides that, there is room for improvisation, which makes it even more exciting. Highlight is the 15 minute title song which beautifully combines improvisation and psychedelica in an ingenious way. Even the two hardly recognizable covers of Jackson Browne ("These Days") and Lennon and McCartney ("Tomorrow Never Knows") can't keep the record from sounding pretty accessible.
Definitely a nice record.

Noordhollands Dagblad (Holland), 12/05/04

Review of "The Universe of Absence"
Gary Lucas and Jozef Van Wissem

By Karel Beckmans

Penetrating psychedelica is how one would describe "The Universe of Absence" by guitarist Gary Lucas and lute player Jozef Van Wissem. Lucas used to be the guitarist for Captain Beefheart but more recently he is also known for expeditions into Chinese String territory.

He takes his instrument beyond the accustomed limits, this he has in common with Jozef Van Wissem.

The sensitive strokes on the lute by Jozef Van Wissem and the looping often distorted guitar sounds of Gary Lucas take the listener on a psychedelic path.

As a listener one is invited to stroll along across the boundaries of an imaginary universe. And to do this with eyes closed in a secluded space, with headphones.

The New York Times, 9/29/04

Nixon as Manipulator and a Feral Child as Victim
By Jennifer Dunning

A bizarre mix of ingredients makes up "Plan B," a new work by Big Dance Theater that opened on Saturday night at Dance Theater Workshop. This theater-dance piece, which will play through Oct. 9, was inspired largely by President Richard M. Nixon's Watergate tapes and a diary written late in life by Kaspar Hauser, the 19th-century feral child who wandered away from the German forest in which he had been raised.

Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar, the company's artistic directors, have added Old Testament passages and Gary Lucas's musical reinterpretations of Taiwanese movie scores. They were also inspired by archival film of dances by the early-20th-century Kabuki actor Matsumoto Koshiro VII.

Somehow, in one seamlessly flowing hour, this is all woven together in a long thread of a story in which each element is clearly visible.

Ms. Parson and Mr. Lazar have made a specialty of implicit theater like this, made vivid by strange, carefully chosen props. Here they have included moveable trees, a small tin toy horse, electronic paraphernalia and a gleaming plastic house in which some of the action takes place. And their performers are skillful ensemble players.

Following the story is mostly an intellectual adventure, until the last poignant image, when the Hauser figure (played by a woman, Tymberly Canale) walks out through back curtains, the horse gliding behind, and gunshots are heard. She has been the pawn in Nixon's plan, devised largely by Rose (Molly Hickok), his secretary. A Bible-quoting, oddly guileless madman, this Nixon (Mr. Lazar) betrays Rose and Hauser (the "noble savage," as he calls her), whom Rose has chosen to carry out Nixon's scheme to decimate his enemies.

Mr. Lazar is fascinating in his constantly shifting portrayal of a strangely innocent evil-doer. Ms. Hickok creates nearly as complex a character, a woman who is smarter and more cynical, perhaps, than her boss, but all too human in the end. Ms. Canale's open face and delicate movement manage to suggest both bland incomprehension and fearful confusion at every moment, in a cast completed by Kate Johnson as a mysterious all-purpose attendant.

Was Nixon's actual secretary, Rosemary Woods, so much the brains behind the Watergate plan? Were Nixon's operatives quite such innocents? Are the dance's buried, fleeting allusions to our own time actual or imagined, glancing, as they do, like the light off the plastic house?

Ms. Parson and Mr. Lazar provide no easy answers. And that is one of the greatest pleasures of "Plan B."

Read the article on the New York Times website here.

Het Parool (Netherlands), 9/04

Gary Lucas and Jozef Van Wissem, "The Universe of Absence"
4 stars

Some of the pieces on The Universe of Absence are truly hypnotizing, like "Screw Your Courage to the Sticking Place". The duo of Jozef van Wissem on Lute and Gary Lucas, former Guitarist with Captain Beefheart and Jeff Buckley on steel guitar, create a psychedelic universe of electronic soundscapes and strumming on medieval lute strings. They produce a delirium of sound. However, the sound does not get on the nerves, the duo know too much what to do. They don't lose control for a moment. Even the ecstacy is controlled. Lucas is a virtuoso, Van Wissem a modest and intelligent lute player. And both are open to experiment. Van Wissem is a master of structure, beautiful patterns are eloping from his lute, Lucas rules in free space, setting out heavy lines. Together they build musical castles in the air, where one, once entered through the door, can freely fantasize.

The International Examiner: Journal of the Northwest Asian Pacific American Communities, Vol. 31, No. 16, Aug. 18-31, 2004

Guitarist on the Edge of Heaven
Review by Jean Vengua

The Edge of Heaven: Gary Lucas Plays Mid-Century Chinese Pop
Label Bleu/Indigo/Harmonia Mundi
Gary Lucas

Recently, I was driving a friend of mine to the dentist for oral surgery. Needless to say, she had other things on her mind besides music. Nevertheless, I played some tracks from The Edge of Heaven: Gary Lucas Plays Mid-Century Chinese Pop on my car's CD player. With the first heavenly chords of "The Wall," my friend became noticeably quiet. About halfway through, she grinned and uttered a drawn-out "Oh!"of surprise and delight, for the moment, transported away from all thought of dental drills and lidocaine injections.

The CD is full of happy surprises; perhaps not the least of these is the fact that the guitarist and arranger is Jewish, from New York City, and best known for his edgy solo albums, Skeleton at the Feast, and Evangeline, and avant-rock, blues and pop collaborations with the likes of Captain Beefheart, Lou Reed, Jeff Buckley, Joan Osborne, DJ Spooky and many others.

What brought Gary Lucas to this cultural cross-roads? The story goes that, while working in nightclubs and television shows in Taipei during his early musical career, his Chinese girlfriend introduced him to the popular songs of singers/actresses Chou Hsuan and Bai Kwong (who were based in Shanghai during the 1930s, and Hong Kong after WWII); he was captivated. Lucas noticed cross-cultural threads woven into the music, in the influence of big-band show-tunes, western style swing, and even blues. Later research revealed that Jewish and American musicians had been performing in Shanghai prior to the 1940s, so the cultural intertwinings of this music were already a given.

However, it was not until years later, when Lucas played some of these songs for a friend's wedding in New York City to the enthusiastic response by the bride's Chinese family, that he decided to record the songs. On six of the tracks, Lucas is joined by Celest Chong and Gisburg, whose lovely and distinctive voices accompany his slide and finger-style guitar-playing. Seven of the thirteen songs are instrumental. Each song on The Edge of Heaven is a gem, from the achingly beautiful slide phrasings of "The Wall" and the intense, other-worldly "Where is my Home" played on National Steel Guitar, to the loping western-swing style and sensual vocals of Gisburg in "I Wait for Your Return."

Make no mistake: this is not "musical tourism," nor even an attempt at faithful imitation; Lucas brings to this music his own considerable knowledge and expertise in jazz, blues, pop and old American show-tunes. Respecting the lush lyricism and romance of the Chinese originals, he approaches these songs with a mix of restraint, delicacy of feeling, and audacity that enable him to surpass ethnic boundaries and go right to the core of the music. Excepting Lucas, I suspect that very few musicians have the breadth of experience and capability to pull off a project like this with such technical élan, and truly heart-felt lyricism and humor. This is an exquisite collection of music.

The New York Times, July 22, 2004

He Can Play Guitar, but Can He Grimace?
By Randy Kennedy

In England they call it, rather elegantly, "throwing shapes." One American practitioner says he thinks of it as "selling a move." But to most people who have seen it up close as a rock concert, it is simply that nutty face that the guitar player makes: a contorted grimace, sometimes involving liberal amounts of tongue, that suggests either ecstasy or accidental electrocution.

"My sister always asked me: why do you make those faces when you play?" said Gary Lucas, who played for Captain Beefheart and was interviewed recently while touring England with the Magic Band. Mr. Lucas could never exactly explain it to his sister, except to say that the "strings have always seemed like an extension of the nervous system."

And somehow, too, making the face was sexy. Mr. Lucas remembers that when he was young, he even noticed the familiar look of pained pleasure on the face of the second or third cellist in the New York Philharmonic.

"He had a certain female section of the audience absolutely swooning," he said.

Now both men and women - professionals, nonprofessionals and air guitarists alike - are being given a chance to put their best swoon-inducing faces on display. As a way to promote a video-on-demand guitar instruction show on cable television called "Guitar Xpress," the company that owns the service, Rainbow Media Holdings, recently came up with the idea of holding a national "guitar face" contest.

Pretenders to the throne of, say, Angus Young of AC/DC (among the widely acknowledged kings of extreme-pain guitar face) or Stevie Ray Vaughn (who patented a kind of uncontrolled hideous laughing look) or Eddie Van Halen (of the prolonged wide-open-mouth school) can take a picture of their own look and send it via e-mail to or mail it to the company, which has lined up a panel of celebrity guitarist judges including Dick Dale, Roger McGuinn and J. J. French of Twisted Sister. When the contest ends in October, the winner will end up with an Epiphone guitar, 15 or maybe even 20 seconds of fame and possibly calls from reality-show casting directors offering more.

Sal Cataldi, a public relations executive and part-time guitar player who came up with the idea for the contest, said that when he started trying to recruit judges "they all immediately knew what I was talking about.

"And they all had these great stories about the guys they thought had the world-class guitar faces," he said, adding that B. B. King's was mentioned often as a classic, an intensely painful look, as if he were playing with broken fingers or had intestinal spasms.

The faces break down into a few general categories: the pout, the pucker, the catfish (open mouth), the heavy squint and the full-face wince. There are combinations, such as the catfish crossed with the heavy squint, which one Web site describes as the Mr. Magoo, after the seeing-impaired cartoon character. And there are also regional variants, like the angry, disdainful no-expression look of the New York guitar player, a face used frequently by Mr. French, the Twisted Sister guitarist, who admits that he adapted his techniques from early performances by Mick Ronson, David Bowie's guitarist.

"This is the J. J. really cool New York look," Mr. French said the other day in an interview at the Sam Ash guitar store on West 48th Street in Manhattan, demonstrating his special almost-no-expression snarl with sunglasses. But then Mr. French, who owns a management company and still tours in full makeup with Twisted Sister ("We always looked like a bunch of middle-aged hookers, but now we really do") showed how his look can change into a tortured but blissful squint when playing high notes at the top of the guitar neck and then relax into a kind of pouty, elongated gape with the lower notes.

Once during a big stadium show in the 1980's, he recalled, he achieved his all-time most successful guitar face after jumping from a drum stand and sliding across the stage, smashing his knee badly against an amplifier. "At which point," he said, "the pain and the expression on my face probably out-Hendrixed Hendrix. And when I was in all that pain, I remember saying to myself, `Go with it, J. J. Milk it. The crowd is eating this up.' "

Which of course brings up the ongoing debate regarding guitar face: how much of it is an expression of genuine, unfiltered musical passion and how much is calculated, the well-honed moves of a seasoned performer?

Mr. French says that he was aware of the need to perform boldly onstage, especially for huge audiences, and that the facial expressions helped.He said they helped "sell the move" he was about to make by windmilling his strumming arm or kicking up one of his waxed legs. But he swears that he never put that much forethought into the look on his face and thinks few professional rock guitarists do.

"I don't think it's like professional wrestling where guys sit around and figure out how they're going to con the audience," he said. "Forgive me for not being that cynical. I like to think we really feel it."

They may, but Mark Weiss, a veteran rock photographer who is a judge for the contest, says that in his 30 years of watching guitarists, he has seen quite a few who were not only very aware of their stage expressions but worked on them.

"That's probably how they got into playing in the first place - it's that they figured out how cool they looked doing it," said Mr. Weiss, who has spent many hours focusing his camera on the faces of Ted Nugent, Mr. Van Halen and the guitarists for extreme-guitar-face hair bands like Poison and Mötley Crüe.

While he will not say which guitarists, he described how some in photo shoots for album covers or magazines "insisted that I have a mirror behind me while I was shooting so they could see their own poses."

"They were thinking about the look a lot," he said.

Mr. Lucas, for one, admits that he did. When he was young, he says, he decided to give up playing the French horn for reasons other than not being so good at it.

"Basically," he said, "I couldn't put on a good rock face while I was playing it."

Q Magazine (UK), July 2004

The Magic Band
Jazz/World Stage, Glastonbury Festival, June 25, 2004

"The sun can burn you, not as bad as people do." Not this afternoon: Captain Beefheart's men dress for the occasion in Hawaiian shirts and a selection of millinery that would shame Stumpy's Hats, Lingerie and Assorted Haberdashery Stall. Grizzled and bearded as if they have been wandering Avalon for decades, these are the coolest bluesmen ever to regret not being born Blind Willie but christened Fishmonkey Drizzlewheel. Gary Mantis Lucas mistreats his Telecaster, Drumbo strains his vocals, the blooz are deconstructed and the burning idiot dancers go wild for Alice in Blunderland, Electricity and Diddy Wah Diddy.

In attendance at Glastonbury was famous UK DJ John Peel, the man who singlehandedly introduced Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band's music to UK audiences by repeated plays in the late 60's on his famous radio show. He repeated this favor 25 years after the fact by inviting the Magic Band into the BBC Maida Vale studios on July 7th to tape a live session for his programme before a passel of friends and fans, including Beefheart biographer Mike Barnes, and forthcoming Magic Band live DVD producer/director Elaine Sheperd (also responsible for the seminal documentary The Artist Formerly Known as Captain Beefheart). The show can be heard at and will be archived there and available for listening until July 21st.

The tour ended with a lightning fast visit to Belgrade where the Magic Band performed in a stone amphitheatre adjacent to a crumbling old castle before delighted Eastern bloc fans, some of whom had traveled from Budapest and Prague to catch this rare one-off appearance. Throughout the tour, the Magic Band encountered rabid fans who came to multiple shows, some of whom criss-crossed the British Isles along with the band to catch these appearances and some of whom traveled from the continental Europe in order to make the scene.

Gara (Spain), February 2004

The Guitarist of 1000 Ideas

Review of live solo acoustic Bilbao show, 2/11/04, Palacio Euskalduna

It was the first time that Gary Lucas came to Bilbao and among the audience gathered at the Euskalduna one could see the most open-minded musicians of the city and the followers of the most risky sounds that rock has generated. Gary Lucas is a man that has played, composed and made history side by side to men as indispensable as Jeff Buckley and Captain Beefheart. With the latter he started playing the guitar solos "Flavor Bud Living" and "Evening Bell", thus becoming a member of The Magic Band. Before working with Captain Beefheart he was hired to play electric guitar with Leonard Bernstein for the premiere of his "Mass" in Vienna. Later he set the Knitting Factory going.

He came to Bilbao alone, he was friendly, somewhat shy, and defended his legacy—twelve published CDs—without compromise. With two acoustic guitars and his own voice, he gave a show that paraded from the delta blues to folk, but interepreting them in a personal manner, showing his skills as a guitarist and his own conceptual take at the hour of re-interpreting those styles.

He opened the show with an instrumental theme defining the patterns of the concert, half instrumental, half sung. He payed homage to Nico—muse of the Velvet Underground—with the song "These Days", which appeared on her seminal first 1967 record "Chelsea Girl". Another theme spoke of a tattoed woman named Lydia, he remembered Captain Beefheart, and his friend Jeff Buckley by playing "Mojo Pin", the song which opens the wonderful record "Grace". He remembered the days in which Jeff and he played the guitar at his house with several of his own themes, among which he highlighted "The Wall" from his record "The Edge of Heaven". Able to fuse folk, jazz and blues, his "Chinese compositions" commanded attention; these are his own adaptations of Chinese songs that were recorded in the 30s.

Toward the end, he made tribute to the bluesman Robert Johnson, and with two encores he left the scene. Humble and sensitive, but full of intellectual restlessness —something indispensable in every musician of a quality worthy to take pride in.

By Gotzon Uribe

Downbeat, March 2004

Magic Band
Back To The Front

Gary Lucas
The Edge Of Heaven

Click here to see a scan of this article.

It's all about context for the virtuosic rock guitarist. Chops can dazzle, but if shiny flurries of notes don't have the proper setting what good are they? Gary Lucas seems to understand this and over the last few decades he's performed in a wide variety of meaningful situations—he led a stylistically peripatetic band called Gods and Monsters that introduced the world to Jeff Buckley, he's done countless sessions with everyone from Bryan Ferry to John Zorn, and his own solo recordings usually embrace thematic approaches—but he remains best known for his stint in Captain Beefheart's Magic Band.

He resumes that role with gusto on "Back To The Front," a Beefheart repertoire band composed of Magic Band alumni. Drummer John "Drumbo" French leads the group through a diverse program of tunes that span just over a decade of Don Van Vliet compositions, rendering an uncanny, throat-shredding impersonation of the Captain's inimitable vocal stylings. It's all impeccably played, the gritty contrapuntal interplay between Lucas and Denny Walley (aka Feelers Reebo) consistently produces sparks, and the knotty blues-drenched genius of the tunes themselves has never been more evident.

Lucas carves out new territory on "The Edge of Heaven," his gorgeous interpretation of hits recorded in the 1930's and 40's by the Chinese film and pop stars Chow Hsuan and Bai Kwong. As heard recently on the soundtrack to Wong Kar-wai's "In The Mood For Love," Chinese pop of this era borrowed heavily from America's hit factory, hybridizing western orchestrations with traditional Chinese instrumental flourishes. Rather than imitate those lovely sounds, Lucas adapts them for both trio and solo guitar where the unabashed focal point is his lyrical playing. Some of the tracks feature sweet Chinese language vocals by Celest Chong and Gisburg, but mostly we get arresting slide and fingerstyle guitar from Lucas that's used to view the material from distinctly new perspectives. His National Steel technique on a song like " The Mad World" brings a trans-Pacific infusion of Hawaiian slack key guitar, while the menacing slide machinations on his solo version of "Where Is My Home" bristle with existential darkness. It's a wonderfully diverse album that opens the door on a lost era and effectively showcases the guitarist's vast talent.

By Peter Margashak

Thanks to Craig (and Igor) for the transcription