Gary Lucas   reviews  

NWZ (Germany), March 1999

A One-Man-Guitar Big Band: A stimulating travel through the time and space of pop music with Gary Lucas
by Klaus Nonnenmacher

Already from the way he looked, his fans could tell that Gary Lucas would not be a disappointment last Saturday night. Completely dressed in black, with the obligatory wide-brimmed hat, the avant-garde guitarist presented a stimulating solo trip though the time and space of pop music.

Gary Lucas, not just the congenial partner of Don Van Vliet of the legendary rock band Captain Beefheart, au contraire—anyone who expected to see a revival band would have gone home disappointed. Lucas only played one Beefheart number—indeed, for the American guitarist the time he spent in the widely respected avant-garde rock band is only a footnote in his career. Lucas has also played with, among others, John Zorn, Lou Reed and and and...from everyone of his projects Lucas sucks up impressions and ideas like a sponge. And with this mixture, he's been carrying on a very successful solo career for years. Take his appearance last Saturday in Goppingen, which at 2 and 1/2 hours of non-stop pleasure never got boring.

Three different instruments he played, and he had a whole bunch of electronics in his bag of tricks. The technology helps to create carpet of sound, or basic rhythmic structure, which Lucas plays off against, almost as if he's dueling with himself. In doing this he mixes his underground pop with funk, with rock, with folk, and he fits in a solo that sounds like a jet flying above.

It's a little quieter when he moves to the antique National steel, a guitar that not only looks like a metal box with holes in it and strings attached but sounds like that as well. And Lucas, who in his musical beginnings as a teenager is supposed to have been a fan of Duane Eddy, moves naturally with the steel guitar though various musical styles, all very tasteful of course. A blues, a little bit of country, some rag, and Chinese pop songs? Yes, indeed, Chinese pop songs. In fact, Lucas spent 2 years in the 70's living in Taiwan, and impressions from that period have stuck with him. He's also very attuned to film music. To be sure, he interprets film music in an unconventional manner. An exciting medley of cartoon music from the 30's in which one begins to recognize one tune and then he's off on another.

Lucas cannot be accused of eclecticism. He played several pieces from his Jewish children's song CD last Saturday, and also some delicacies from his own repertoire of compositions, with a hint of Lou Reed, Nick Cave, and Iggy Pop. One can also make out influences from other guitarists such as Dylan, Cooder and Zappa. None of this takes away from his originality as a songwriter. At some point the concert did actually come to an end. But one had the impression that Lucas as a one man -guitar-big band could have played till dawn, song for song from his supply of treasures, and still not run out.

The Captain Beefheart Radar Station (website), June, 1999

Gary Lucas—"@Paradiso"
by Graham Johnson

Song list:
1. Rise Up To Be
2. Bra Joe From Kilimanjaro
3. Autobahn
4. The Songstress On The Edge Of Heaven

* Catalogue number: OMWCD11
* Label: Oxygen Music Works
* Released: 1999
'Gary Lucas @Paradiso' is a tiny gem. It features just four tracks and 22 minutes of Gary recorded alone on stage with his guitar and electronics, and leaves you wanting about twice as much again. It was recorded at Amsterdamís Paradiso club, at various shows that took place between 1996 and 1997, and is entirely free of overdubs, something which I find fairly mind-boggling.

The four songs may well be familiar already to many listeners, though not necessarily as being Gary Lucas numbers. The opener, Rise Up To Be, will be more familiar as the music from the Jeff Buckley tune Grace from Buckley's debut album of the same name. Gary played in Buckley's band, and co-wrote two of the songs from 'Grace' (Mojo Pin being the other), and here dedicates the whole of this mini-album to the memory of Jeff Buckley. And a magical tune it is; this particular version shimmers and sparkles, and ideally would go on for ever. Sadly it doesn't, but the following tune is also a pleasing surprise, a cover of Dollar Brand's Bra Joe From Kilimanjaro (their original can be found on the 'Ancient Africa' album). Bearing little similarity to the South African jazzy original, Garyís widdly-widdly almost heavy metal guitar spoos and noodles all over the place, sounding fantastic, laid over a gently repetitive background of guitar and electronic twiddles which will have you swaying blissfully away.

A very ambient cover of Kraftwerk's Autobahn is next up, drenched in fuzzy distortion, and containing elements which sound closer in intent to Vini Reilly's Durutti Column than to Kraftwerk. The final tune, from 'Evangeline', is The Songstress on the Edge of Heaven. This is a Chinese folk tune masterfully picked out on a steel guitar, and brings the album to a close far too soon. Still, it is only a mini-album, and comes at a mini-price as well.


Guitar Magazine, June, 1999

Gary Lucas—Divine Experimenation
by Ken Micallef

On his latest album Busy Being Born, experimental blues-cum-noise guitarist Gary Lucas entertains Gods, monsters, and every other mad being in between. The last guitarist to work in Captain Beefheart's mind-altering Magic Band and to record its last album, Ice Cream for Crow, views his delirious amalgam of styles as a product of an impetuous youth.

"I am not religious," he explains, "but I loved to hear those traditional songs in the temple. This is my blues background, really. There is a similarity between many forms of ethnic music, religious music of many stripes, and the blues. A really wailing cantor in a Jewish synagogue is almost a blues singer. They do flatted thirds and fifths and sevenths. Most of these people re aspiring to embody a spiritual voice; it's almost like the voice of God speaking through a bent note."

Lucas has recorded a slew of albums on various labels, including avant-garde saxaphonist John Zorn's Jewish Alternative label, Tzadik. Lucas also collaborated with the late Jeff Buckley, as well as electronic darlings Riz Maslen and Future Sound of London. In concert, he performs such originals as "The Golem" (an expressive soundtrack to an old silent movie), and covers works by Wagner, Bernard Herrmann, Albert Ayler, Pink Floy's Syd Barrett, and Kraftwerk. These are no polite pop tribute versions, but full-blown adventures in re-and deconstruction, a throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks course in riffage and roughage where nothing, not even th guitars, escapes unscathed.

"I beat the guitars up; they are full of nicks and scratches," he laughs. "I am not into prettiness. I've always had a visceral hatred of performers on MTV, where it is all shiny and new. I like really rugged, authentic, rootsy expression. I love antique guitars, and I play the shit out of them. They are not beautiful, but they have a certain nobility after you've played them in a thousand clubs."

Lucas' antiques include 1946 Gibson J45 acoustic, a 1920's National Steel Duolian, and a 1963 Strat. To achieve his unique, resonant sound, Lucas uses a variety of effects in addition to his rotating rig, which consists of a Roland JC 120 amp, a Fender Twin, and a Marshall Combo. But the Lucas sound is much mor than the sum of its asembled gear parts. "I am fundamentally a blues guitarist, although I take it into a lots of extremes of avant-garde music; folk, classical, and jazz influences; and fusion. But there is a blues feeling in everything that I do. And one of the secrets of my guitar technique is that I use just regular D'Addario rock and roll light gauge strings. I don't use round-wound strings. I like to bend them, almost like a slinky. I'm of the Tommy Bolin school; I don't change strings until they break. That helps with those bluesy bends."

Influenced by Skip James, Charely Patton, Son House, and Bukka White, Lucas views the blues as universal, the sound of wailing words and warped notes.

"That is the kind of music that moves me more than anything. When I hear a guy on a sitar bending a string, I know exactly what he is trying to do. I can feel it in my own hand. There is ecstasy in the bends and and slides. It's like slipping in between the notes is getting you closer to God."

Der Tagespiegel, March 14, 1999

Baptism In German/Jewish History:
The U.S. guitarist Gary Lucas accompanies the silent film "The Golem"

by Wolf Kampmann

When New York guitarist Gary Lucas comes to Berlin, it is always a little bit like he's coming home. He began his career as a solo musician at the Berlin JazzFest more than 10 years ago, but it is not merely this milestone in his career that ties this guitarist with passionate tone to the German capitol. Gary Lucas lost a large part of his family under the Nazis and he now tries to construct bridges from the Jewish side outwards. So he uses each opportunity to search out evidences of German/Jewish history, and he knows how to tell the kind of stories about this history that even native Berliners don't know.

In Captain Beefheart's band, which he still refers to as "Beefheart University", Lucas studied the psychoacoustical laws of music. From the beginning, he transcended the borders of genre and he lets out at the moment of playing whatever immediately moves him. His debut album "Skeleton at the Feast" belongs to the classics of modern guitar performance, and with 5 further albums he's been able to knit together a thick net of classic folk song, progressive rock, free jazz and beyond, heavy metal, and classical music. Even before John Zorn, Lucas concerned himself with Jewish themes and crossed over to the opposite aesthetic shore..."As a Jew, to perform the wonderful music of the anti-semite Richard Wagner right here for the German public is for me a challenge and a calling."

With his Golem project—another foray into joining the German and Jewish worlds—he played live accompanying the silent film as one of the first musicians in recent times, and helped start a worldwide trend. As the composer of Jeff Buckley's hits "Mojo Pin" and "Grace" he was able to add 2 further jewels of pop music into his account. Nothing however compares to the experience of his live performance. He not only melds himself together with his instrument such that you can't even tell where skin and flesh end and wood and string begin, but he also becomes one with his melodies. His sound is like an enchanted forest in which one only finds oneself only going deeper and deeper without however feeling any desire to leave. It doesn't matter whether he's playing the acoustic or electric guitar or if he pulls out his dobro. Lucas gives his audience the feeling of sharing in a secret from which normal mortals are excluded. On his most recent album "Busy Being Born", a collection of old and new Jewish children's songs, he lets fairies and monsters spring from his strings. Lucas reveals himself as a boogey man, with Mephistophelian joy he rubs his hands together. "I like to frighten people. Even as a child I enjoyed being frightened myself. Nothing else can really shake us awake." It is not possible to predict where one might find oneself being led at the solo performance of this manic sound scientist. It is certain however that he will get deep under the skin of every listener with his guitar injections., February 8, 1999

Gary Lucas: Musicianís Musician, Mensch and Magician
by Jody Beth Rosen

Back in 1966, a 14-year-old Gary Lucas was jamming along to the Yardbirds' "Roger The Engineer", Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention's "Freak Out!", Simon and Garfunkel's "Bookends" and the Rolling Stones' "Aftermath". Thirty-three years later, pressed for an answer to the question "What was the last group or album that made a significant impact on you?" he says "The Smiths" without hesitation. He is "disappointed by current music," as many people of his generation are, but he's gone one step further than the usual passive-aggressive nostalgic complaining. He's created his own brand of current music, one that borrows from Wagner, British progressive rock, Bernard Hermann's Hitchcock scores, science fiction, and a kind of blues so authentic it can only be heard these days on some Jewish bookworm's late-night college radio show.

My boyfriend the noise geek mocks me. "You're not into these guitar people. I play you Frank Zappa; you leave the room. I put on King Crimson; all you're capable of doing is saying "Frippertronics" with a snide grin on your face. Adrian Belew doesn't even register with you. Why on earth do you like Gary Lucas?"

The answer? Zappa was a talented fellow. I always liked his ability to thoroughly disgust me; it meant he was doing his job, rebelling against the schmaltzy repetitiveness of his colleagues. But I don't look to music to be alienated. The "30% More Notes In Every Bar!" philosophy often means a sacrifice of feeling, of beauty. Why on earth do I like Gary Lucas? He's an artist. He's to be classified separately. The next record store clerk who sticks him in the same section as Yngwie J. Malmsteen will be shot on sight.

We always said we were going to catch Lucas in concert. Many a time, I was away at college, looking at the tattered copies of the Village Voice they kept on the counter of the University Union newsstand, and I'd see listings for Gary Lucas' Gods and Monsters at the Knitting Factory . . . on a Tuesday night! I would have had to take a 3 1/2 hour trip downstate on the Short Line bus, a subway ride downtown from the Port Authority, and another voyage back upstate. Perhaps I was home in Brooklyn, out of school entirely, and Lucas was doing a Du-Tels show with Peter Stampfel down at Tonic, but it was a Sunday night (read: "Simpsons") and I (or my boyfriend) had the flu. We finally caught Gods and Monsters (at the Knitting Factory, as it turns out) a few weeks back, and were wowed. The Tiger Lilies, an English novelty band, opened up, and were rendered awful and irrelevant by the time Lucas plunged into his first song.

During the two interviews I had with Lucas, he struck me as a real individual, a mainstay of New York City's premier eclectic-music haunts who hasn't a shred of "downtown" attitude. He doesn't try, is what it is; hipness gravitates toward him. He seldom rides the subways ("They can be very jarring. I'm still a neurotic Jewish person."), sees movies, or lives the "bohemian" lifestyle, despite having moved to New York in 1977. However, he is recording an album with the electronica outfit Future Sound of London (he says their "sensibilities match up" to his) and sells out venues in Amsterdam. His new EP, "Gary Lucas@Paradiso", features live material from his favorite Amsterdam concert hall, a church that has hosted rock shows since the late 1960's (Lucas believes Paradiso has excellent acoustics and "very benign spirits.")

There are four songs on the EP. There's a cover of Kraftwerk's "Autobahn" ("frenetic, driving") and a number called "Bra Joe From Kilimanjaro" ("electronic, aggressive.") There's a reworking of a Chinese pop hit from 1937 named "The Songstress On The Edge of Heaven" (which can also be heard on Lucas' 1997 album "Evangeline".) There's also "Rise Up To Be", a song Lucas gave to Jeff Buckley in the summer of 1991. Buckley wrote lyrics for the instrumental piece, and it became "Grace", the title track of Buckley's 1994 album. "Gary Lucas@Paradiso" re-introduces "Rise Up To Be" in its original form. The EP, although not yet released, has been circulating around London and has been mixed into performances by DJ Riz Maslen (Lucas has recorded with Maslen as Jet Stream Tokyo.)

What does all this sound like? Without getting into sloppy adjective-throwing or reference-bandying-about, I'll tell you. Fog. Monsters. Europe. Chimes. Echoes. Years of practice. Upstate New York winters (Syracuse, to be exact, and he hated it there). Visions of New York City, records from the South. Sometimes, rain falling so fast it's all a wet, plinky collage. English trolls with funny accents. Fireflies. Scenes in movies wherein a handsome gentleman and his comely female companion drive along sharp-bending mountain roads to meet their bloody fate.

In 1989, Lucas and keyboardist Walter Horn debuted their score for Paul Wegener's 1920 silent film Der Golem (though Wegener filmed two previous versions of Der Golem, the 1920 film is his most highly regarded.) Lucas still shows screenings of Der Golem, playing guitar in the background. Horn no longer accompanies Lucas ("Basically, I'm in the Golem business and he's not", Lucas said.) I went to see it for the first time on January 27th, at the World Financial Center's Winter Garden. At the show, he repeated his "Golem business" comment to the audience, adding, "Have Golem, Will Travel."

Amid the Winter Garden's palm trees and panoramic skylight, Lucas backed the spooky, German expressionist film with airy, fantastic shards of sound, conjuring musical spirits the way Rabbi Loew conjures up the clay beast of the movie's title, the "monster without a soul" who "terrifies the multitudes" (as it states in the program handed out at the screening.) The movie genuinely belongs in the "horror" genre. Coupled with the music and augmented by tinting all the print's scenes in different colors, it's a beautiful, "phantasmagoric" (Lucas' word), frightening thriller, an experience most Wes Craven-weaned kids will never know. Just when the audience was fully engrossed in the film (I could tell because the person behind me had stopped discussing mutual funds with his friend), Lucas threw in a lick from Wagner's "Flight of the Valkyries."

During interludes such as this one, he feels he is "laughing through his guitar." He admits comedy plays a role in his music (in fact, his Jewish-themed 1998 album "Busy Being Born" pays homage to the Marx Brothers) and confesses to being a "Seinfeld" enthusiast. It's one of the only shows he'll watch.

Lucas was never much of a TV viewer as a kid in Syracuse, NY. He spent his time reading, playing guitar, talking to his older friends, but the self-styled "loner" never felt comfortable in his surroundings. During our interview, we talked about the off-balance, dismal atmosphere of upstate New York (I attended college in nearby Binghamton, the birthplace of "The Twilight Zone"'s Rod Serling—one of Lucas' heroes.) In high school, he was already scoring films; his first assignment was the Serling-narrated Aquatic Ecology for the Upstate Medical Center's documentary film unit. Despite his otherness, Lucas' application essay to Yale (which would be his alma mater) was a treatise on his life as a "child of the media."

He says he always figured he would "wind up in New York City," and he feels "the most grounded" there, but his intense "wanderlust" and his touring schedule have taken him around the world. He loves Europe, particularly Amsterdam (he's played at Paradiso eight times since 1980, when he was a member of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band) and has considered making Europe his home.

Since Lucas' days as the music director at Yale's radio station, WYBC-FM, his dream was to play guitar in Captain Beefheart's band, and it was shortly after Beefheart's East Coast debut that the two met and became friends. Before Lucas became a guitarist with the Magic Band (appearing as a soloist on the albums "Doc at the Radar Station" and "Ice Cream for Crow", he had another impressive gig. In 1973, he, along with the Yale Symphony Orchestra, ventured to Vienna to take part in Leonard Bernstein's "Mass". It was the piece's European premiere.

After graduation, he lived in Taipei for two years, and formed the O-Bay-Gone Band with a group of natives and fellow travelers (the name is Taiwanese for "The Bullshit Band.") The band was doing well, but a bar brawl in 1976 led Lucas to return to New York. He worked as a copywriter for CBS Records, and eventually made the Magic Band his full time job. Well, Captain Beefheart quit the business in 1984, changed his professional name back to Don Van Vliet, and decided to make his living as a painter. Music's a fickle business, as Lucas can tell you. He's managed to survive.

He tries to concentrate on his spiritual life ("I'm not a careerist," he says). Recording "Busy Being Born" for John Zorn's Tzadik label is just one way he's chosen to do this. In addition, he volunteers at a Jewish home, to "give back to the older generation." He has been invited to do Der Golem in Tel Aviv. Before I saw him at the Winter Garden, he had flown down to Miami with Der Golem. The audience, which comprised mainly of elderly Jewish people, didn't know what to make of Lucas' guitar, and "politely applauded." Zorn approached Lucas about recording another album of Jewish songs for Tzadik, but Lucas thinks he'll wait a while. He doesn't want to be pigeonholed.

Lucas was not raised in a strictly observant household, but he did go to Hebrew school and had a bar mitzvah. He says, "I will not deny my identity. I embrace it. I relate to the plight of Jews in history." When asked whether he thought Jewish musical forms like klezmer, which is very popular in New York right now, would ever reach the level of cultural saturation that big band and swing have, he responded by saying, "I hope so. I hope it will humanize Jewish people." He believes there is a "frightening disparity between the cosmopolitan element of New York Jews and the rest of America." What are Lucas' thoughts on swing? "I did a Gods and Monsters show with Royal Crown Revue, and was thrown off by the slavish recreation of it." (Gods and Monsters is one of Lucas' numerous side projects, a loud, rocking band with a rotating lineup that has included Jeff Buckley and Matthew Sweet.)

Looking back on the '90s, he feels it's "all a blur." "The last couple of decades had more of a recognizable feel." He is scared of how "everything is accelerated" and "civility has been stripped away." A "Jimmy Stewart, or even George Bush" America "has fallen by the wayside."

It's hard to eke out a living in the '90s music world, where thousands of bands compete for the same spotlight. Luckily, Lucas' albums have near-universal critical acclaim (he's been dubbed "Guitarist of 1,000 Ideas" and "a true axe God." "The things he manages to conjure up are astonishing", one Dutch reviewer said.)

I alerted him to a recent New York Press article celebrating the Extinction of the Record Reviewer, and he disagreed with the writer, saying music critics have a "good function—to notify people as to excellence." He looks down upon the negativity used by certain writers, but believes the "glut of crap" calls for a "road map." "The '60s were different. It was easier to take a gamble on music." There were fewer albums from which to choose, and Lucas often picked things up solely for the psychedelic cover art.

Now, his musical career has forced him to look at recreational listening as a busman's holiday. He doesn't hear much radio (although he says he has enjoyed being a guest on Vin Scelsa's freeform show, "Idiot's Delight") and shies away from current trends. He speaks highly of Scelsa, praising his "'60s sensibility."

Lucas still loves music, and is extremely humble about his accomplishments and his place in the pantheon of guitar wizards. In other words, he's too nice to be a working musician. "I'm in awe of music," he says. "I don't think anyone has a monopoly on it." He practices for at least an hour a day in his West Village apartment. His songwriting style depends upon his constant dialogue with the guitar. "I have to write by playing, stumbling upon motifs, improvising, recording my ideas . . . I try to turn my mind off."

That's a hard job for a guitarist of 1,000 ideas.