Joseph Arthur 02/08/11
Bootleg Theater, Los Angeles, CA
Words/Photos by Reverend Justito
I had heard only bad things about Bootleg Theater. Adjacent to downtown Los Angeles, from the lack of parking in an undesirable neighborhood to the venues stale atmosphere my expectations were rather low. Oh, and who can overlook the fact that the name is Bootleg Theater, yet the art of bootlegging is highly frowned upon? I have always told myself that if an artist is worth being stabbed, shot or mugged for, then I would schlep out to Historic Filipino Town for some live music. So with low expectations I headed towards downtown hoping my tombstone would not end up reading “Died at a Joseph Arthur Show in a Shit Part of Town.”
My iPhone lied to me and traffic was much lighter on Interstate 10 then expected. The reward of an early arrival was the “musical” styling of two dudes who never once mentioned the name of their act. No joke, before the first song had finished 4/5th of the room had cleared. It’s not that the duo was bad; I just feel that the crowd was not ready to watch the illegitimate love child of Rainn Wilson and Chris Burke sing folk songs. Let’s be honest, it takes balls to perform a song called “Freebird” that is not the version made famous Lynyrd Skynyrd. Yet these two guys did just that much to the delight of what I must assume is the love interest of half if not the entire band. It would be easy for me to rip these dudes apart for their boring songs, dreadful banter and major lack of stage presence and bodily hygiene. Instead, I will just encourage to duo to continue with you art. Perhaps you will grow as performers even if no one knows who the fuck you are.
The actual announced opener goes by the name of Tom Freund. Prior to Tuesday night, I was not familiar with the singer/songwriter. Unlike the first act, Freund won over the near capacity crowd with his 30 minute set of reflective and hilarious songs. Freund splits his time between acoustic guitar and upright bass and is fierce upon the strings of both instruments. When on bass, his grooves remind me of Les Claypool, which is a compliment in the highest. For about half of his set, Freund welcomed piano virtuoso (and former Joseph Arthur opening act) Chris Joyner to the stage. We all know Joyner commands the keys, but on this particular evening his ivory tickling was minimal and only served to accentuate the music.
The most impressive moment of Freund’s time upon the stage was the set closing “Truly Mellow.” Described as a song about getting high as a teen, Freund asked the crowd to sing along to the final verse. A rare task that not even the likes of Linkin Park can pull off in this town, the crowd willingly sang along with Freund ending a truly magical set on a high note.
Sir Arthur (as dubbed by Freund) hit the stage for the first of four consecutive Tuesday nights at Bootleg just past 10pm. Arthur artistically multi-tasks by performing music while painting on stage. He showcased both gifts right out the gate as he opened the 100 minute set with some paints and “A Smile That Explodes.” My first trip to “Chicago” with Arthur quickly followed as the goose bumps began to take hold upon my flesh. Such a powerful song (aren’t they all?) and to once again be up front and (almost) center with the man is nothing short of inspiring.
With a new full length solo album due out in the spring, Arthur’s set consisted of numerous songs I assume will be on the album. One highlight was a new number that I believe was called “Out on a Limb.” The song is everything you would expect from Arthur; semi-personal lyrics, lush melodies and his trademark guitar loops. A funny moment came right after “Limb” as Arthur attempted to begin “Watch Your Shadows Run.” He completely spaced and forgot how to play the song. After joking and struggling for a few moments, Arthur found the songs correct key and went to town. Many artists would have simply given up and moved onto the next song. Watching Arthur struggle turn into triumph only made my already massive amounts of respect for the man grow.
Arthur welcomed opener Tom Freund to the stage to perform two numbers upon his upright bass. The first was a version of “I Miss the Zoo” that was rather raw compared to previous live versions I have witnessed. Then again, with Arthur informing Freund what chords make up “Zoo” and the following number “Lack A Vision” on stage seconds before performing the songs, a certain raw vulnerability was to be expected. As soon as Freund left, Arthur welcomed a friend from last year’s Stronghold residency to the stage. Armed with the voice of an angel; C.C. White joined Arthur for the nights high point, “All The Old Heroes.” With at least a 14 inch difference in height the two managed to share a mic while also sharing an energy that can’t be put into words. White’s vocal took the place of the guitar solo bringing huge smiles to all in attendance.
For the final few numbers, it appeared Arthur decided to ditch what he wanted to play in order to take some requests. All the songs one would expect to be screamed out were indeed screamed out. I was forced to ponder if the fan who screamed “Freebird” wanted to hear the classic version or the version performed upon the same stage a few hours earlier. While neither version of “Freebird” was played, plenty of fan favorites were. The first was “Echo Park” which worked well as we were gathered together just minutes from the Los Angeles neighborhood of the same name. As always, “Black Lexus” was money in the bank and not just because the song mentions the very city we call home.
It was the final two songs of the night that reminded me why I would venture into a rough neighborhood well past my bedtime on a Tuesday night. I have seen Arthur perform both “Slide Away” and the eventual set closer “You Are Free” numerous times. Each version has managed to stay true to the original recorded version, yet is performed in a unique manner each time. Arthur is a one man jam band, taking his songs into the unknown every time he hits a stage. Don’t believe me, check out YouTube and see for yourself. Better yet, get your ass down to Bootleg Theater the next three Tuesday nights. It was clear from the first night that Arthur is just getting warmed up. I look forward to see what goes down over the next few weeks inside the plywood walls of the Bootleg Theater.