October 2006

Arthur Brown
presented by Gary Topp

With Alex Radeff opening the evening

October 16, 2006 Lula Lounge Toronto
The Spirit Of Shakespeare In Acoustic Improv Rock Opera
by Sebastian Cook with photos by Roger Humbert

I was outside having a cancer stick with a friend and former Seneca College professor, Richard, who was enjoying Lula Lounge for the first time one late August evening. He asked me to tell him about anything coming up that might be of interest to him. The first show that came to mind given his psychedelic 60s and 70s sensibilities was Arthur Brown. His jaw dropped to the concrete as he replied, “Arthur Brown is coming here?!?” The only thing I can recall from the rest of that brief conversation was, “Arthur is crazy.” Thus began my understanding of the historical significance of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, which thanks to Gary Topp I would now have the chance to experience for one memorable evening.

The honour of setting the table for Arthur went to Toronto singer/songwriter Alex Radeff of the art-rock trio Donkey, a long-time acquaintance who in the early 90s had been one of the first people to give me guitar pointers and wisdoms. His first song, “Broken Heart”, started awkwardly with feedback and crackling strings before settling into a soothing, Pink Floyd sort of zone; including the first of many impressive pearls of lyricism, “What you need is iron for your will.” The next several songs had the feel of 1950s crooning, including a touching cover of “Peace in the Valley” in tribute to the impresario Gino Empry who passed away last week. “Wartime” was the highlight of his set, including the nuggets “When the enemy’s blood is what waters the soil” and “In the shattered city where the wounded count the dead.” He played several more alt-country originals before closing with the short and catch little ditty “Silvery Moon”.

After a short break, it was time for Brown’s suitably grand and theatric entrance starting with a furious fiddle volley from his wondrously talented accomplice Nick Pynn, who also played acoustic guitar and brilliantly orchestrated the loops which layered the two acoustic sounds with a bass rhythm. The lovely Erella escorted a masked Brown right past our table and onto the stage, his tall and slender figure clad in an open black robe. One could imagine his eyes peering through the mask as he boomed, “Where have you been?” Pounding a huge walking staff on the stage floor in 4/4 time, his chorus rang out “A hard, hard, rain is gonna fall.” At the end of the opening song, he raised the staff behind his shoulders in a crucifix pose and began shrieking in a piercing falsetto.

He then revealed his face to the small but rapt audience for the first time; long locks flowing and bald on top, with the tiniest of eyes and goatee, the resemblance to Jesus impossible to ignore in light of the theatrics from moments ago. Breaking into a spoken word verse, and then into utterly primal howling, he jumped and gesticulated wildly about the stage to the accompaniment of a classic Brit-rock guitar riff from Pynn. He mimed the plunging of a dagger into his chest, removed his robe to reveal a shimmering sequined disco suit, and then danced a hearty Irish jig.

By this point it was clear that this not merely a concert but an improvised rock opera, every bit as much performance art as music that drew from Brown’s original creative calling in the theatre. While Pynn tweaked the loops and sampling setup, Brown sat down for a minute or two of wry observation over a glass of wine at the candelabra-adorned table stage left. Apparently, he was warming up for his first acoustic guitar foray of the evening. The song was entitled “Angels in My Mind”, his rich baritone pouring out the chorus “I would sing with a voice of love the stories yet untold.” It was the first of several meditations on love, and such poignancy from a man who so clearly relished living on the edge of sanity increased its power all the more.

Brown then introduced his “Lecture on the Movement of Body Parts and the Sexual Saving of the Planet.” An oblique reference to Buffy and the Vampire Slayer, a staccato chirp building into a deep roar, dancing like a tripped-out showgoer from his heydays — all set to another brilliant bit of guitar virtuosity from Pynn — led into a hilarious vignette of a circle-jerk amongst Tony Blair, George W. Bush and the Pope. At the end, he fell dramatically to the ground with a cry of, “Let me out!”

He rose and walked over to his dinner table, beginning a rumination of the state of his hotel room, the wealthy misery of the executive, and groupies. As if on cue, one of Lula’s fetching servers walked past the stage, catching Brown’s lascivious eye; he deadpanned, “I thought it was a groupie,” to a roar of laughter from the crowd. He lay down on the stage, recited a short poem and instructed Pynn to “Wake me when the set’s over.”

Arthur Brown

Nick Pynn
This was the ironic lead-in to the song most of the audience was undoubtedly awaiting, the famous global chart-topper “Fire”. “You’ve been living like little boys, surrounded by psychedelic toys,” he sang in his incredibly rangeful voice. The audience needed no prodding to respond to his rhythmic call of “Burn!” Towards the end of the song, Brown came down into the audience, feet from our table, gazing right into the eyes of several audience members and playfully borrowing the baseball cap of one man for a moment. His ability to portray a childlike energy in the midst of such brilliantly intricate showmanship was truly remarkable.

Appropriately, this trip back in time to 1968 was followed by a nod to Nick Pynn as a musician of “exemplary ability” (an understatement to be sure), taking his place in a lineage of Brown’s creative collaborators that includes Frank Zappa and Jimi Hendrix. Pynn obliged with a blistering Latin salvo on guitar, while Brown moved around the stage with the grace of a classically trained dancer and an energy that belied his 62 years. Indeed, the sheer diversity and depth of Brown’s talents was as impressive as the intentional irony of its presentation.

“Devil’s Brew” featured vocals that evoked Vince Neal of Motley Crue in their pitch and harmony. One again, I marveled at Brown’s ability to cover so much range in even a single lyric phrase, even more so across an entire composition. Pynn delivered his longest guitar solo of the evening before Brown returned to close the song with falsetto shouts of “Devil!” This is a man who clearly chooses to play with his demons rather than wrestle them!

Arthur Brown

From speaking of the devil, Brown segued into another meditation on love “as the spirit that will never die”; the song with Pynn’s alternating guitar and fiddle was straight out of The Who’s vintage years. Brown introduced Pynn for “a little fiddle music” which my colleague Roger identified as the classic “Orange Blossom Special”. It was, as Brown sardonically pointed out, particularly impressive as “he’s not even Irish.”

The final song was a driving rock number called “Gypsies of the Road”, Brown’s voice belting out as he provided the percussion with his dance steps on a wooden board. At the end, he placed it between his knees while Pynn scratched the frets of his guitar. “That’s the end of another cockroach,” mused Brown as the two exited the stage to the crowd’s amused and enthralled applause.

The encore began with Brown remarking, “You may have noticed we came back on quite quickly,” which was indeed the case. He turned towards Pynn and holding his hands out like a psychic with tarot cards chanted in a delicate voice, “You will live as if there is no yesterday or no tomorrow.” Pynn’s guitar slowly crescendoed as Brown hummed meditatively, breaking into a dissonant song “There’s a Train a Comin’” that evoked in both Roger and myself the ghost of Jim Morrison — and repeated statements to the effect that we had both seen something we would never forget.

Gary Topp related after the show that he had first tried to bring Arthur Brown to these parts for Edgefest back in 1980, and had his interest rekindled when compiling an intermission soundtrack for his shows with The Audience earlier this year and wanting to use Brown’s “I Put a Spell on You”. Almost 30 years later, he finally got his man to Toronto. It seems likely, even appropriate, that this might be Arthur’s final appearance here, for he is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Dramatis personae
Arthur Brown – artistic director, vocals, sticks, boards, acoustic guitar & other assorted props
Nick Pynn – acoustic guitar, fiddle, loops & samples


We welcome your comments and feedback
Sebastian Cook
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Roger Humbert
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The Live Music Report

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