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Lee "Scratch" Perry

Lee "Scratch" Perry at the Jazz Cafe

(Secret; US: Available as import; UK: 25 Feb 2008)

That this live recording, from March 2007, even exists is a victory in and of itself. That a performer like Lee Perry is still around, and still making vital music is a fact that is hard to not grin at. And if, like me, there are people out there skeptical about the modern day performances of older performers, then albums like Lee “Scratch” Perry at the Jazz Cafe should at least temporarily ease that skepticism. There is no need to apply the Rolling Stones, give-it-up-already tag to Lee Perry. Instead, this record finds him and his band, the Upsetters, playing just as strongly as they ever have.


It takes only a few seconds of the instrumental intro for the listener to realize that the Upsetters are on top of their game. It seems like dub and raggae, with that loose sway, could make for live bands who play slack rather than with a joyful energy, but not so with the Upsetters. They are tight throughout the recording, and make for a perfect palate for Perry’s weathered vocals.


This show reminds us, first and foremost, of Perry’s love of pure sound. His repetition of lines, his impromptu scatting—he sings “do-be-do-be-do” all over this record—and his constant call and response with the crowd in between songs show the sheer joy he gets out of the simplest of noises. Like some of the best singers and songwriters from any genre, Perry has spent a career boiling his musical vocabulary down to the most essential. There isn’t a word or sound wasted in his songs.


However, though Perry revels in simple elements, his music cannot be dismissed as something easy or thin. Perry and the Upsetters fix the slightest but most vital flourishes into these songs, making them not only distinct from one another, but also able to subtly convey a wide swath of emotions. The growling wah-pedal on “I Am a Madman” anchors the song’s volatile combination of frustration and unmoored, uncontrollable joy. The lilt in Perry’s voice on “Introducing Myself” makes the song a bittersweet, almost pleading shuffle. And on “I Wish It Would Rain Peace”, the band slows to a country-tinged ballad, and Perry turns down the volume on his plaintiff bark, making for the set’s most beautiful moment.


The pacing of the show is particularly striking. Despite maintaining the band’s signature sway throughout, these songs never run together. Slight variations in tempo and small, hidden gems to be found in each song keep the set fresh the whole way through. And Perry not only connects with the audience in the Jazz Cafe between tracks, he somehow connects with us, the listener, hearing this show a year after its recording. That openness only hints at the universality of Perry’s appeal. And while this show does lack the beautiful grime of the Upsetters’ studio records—particularly the Super-Ape albums—it is a minor complaint. The band loses no energy by attaining clarity live, and Perry proves himself to be as energetic and exciting as any performer half his age.

Rating:

Matthew Fiander is a music critic for PopMatters and Prefix Magazine. He also writes fiction and his work has appeared in The Yalobusha Review. He received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro and currently teaches writing and literature at High Point University in High Point, NC. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattfiander.


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