Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry

(Above: The eccentric Lee “Scratch” Perry shows Jools Holland around his Black Ark studio in Kingston, Jamaica in the late ’70s. Perry produced reggae greats Junior Murvin, Bob Marley and the Wailers, Max Romeo, U-Roy and many more at Black Ark before it mysteriously burned to the ground.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Halfway through the third song of the night, Lee “Scratch” Perry ordered the band to halt. He wasn’t feeling it from the crowd, and reggae can’t be performed without the proper energy. After admonishing the audience and getting the desired feedback, Perry and his four-piece backing band resumed the number.

The request may have seemed more reasonable had it occurred hours earlier. The hundred or so fans who populated the Beaumont Club Sunday evening had patiently waited through two bands and an overlong DJ set. As the clock tipped toward Monday, they had a right to be tired.

Fortunately, both the crowd and Perry were rejuvenated by the time-out. The 73-year-old reggae legend delivered over an hour of his favorites and four songs by Bob Marley, one of the scores of reggae greats Perry has produced throughout his five-decade career.

Marley’s songs were nearly unrecognizable. Perry didn’t own them as much as deconstruct the numbers, turning them into springboards for his chanted verses and call-and-response choruses. “Kaya,” a number Perry co-wrote and produced with Marley closed the night, while “One Drop,” a number Marley wrote and recorded alone, concluded a trio of interpretations.

With scores of albums to his name, Perry had more than enough original material to draw from. “Roast Fish and Cornbread” came from his heyday in the late ‘70s, while set opening “Secret Laboratory” hailed from a decade later. The playful “Pum Pum” came from last year’s collaboration with “Party Hard” rocker Andrew W.K.

Although Perry’s arrangements are similar, Lionized, the four-piece Maryland band backing him, did a good job of mixing textures and varying tempos. They knew how to push both Perry and the crowd for maximum effect.

Lionized got 40 minutes for themselves before Perry took the stage. They were preceded by local DJ FSTZ, who spun dub, trance and techno for 70 minutes. 77 Jefferson took the stage when the sun was still up with an upbeat 40-minute set.

The diminutive Perry took the stage at 11 p.m. carrying a suitcase and wearing enough bling to make Flavor Flav and Lil Jon blush. Rings decorated every finger and multiple bracelets adorned each wrist. Mirrors and amulets were stuffed into every surface of his cap and spray-painted work boots. More than a dozen charms dangled around the microphone head.

The reggae equivalent of Sun Ra, Perry has claimed to be from outer space at various times throughout his career. He proved it a couple times on Sunday night by dumping a bottle of water over his cap-covered head and right shoe while dancing what looked like the hokey pokey during “Roast Fish and Cornbread.” Later in the set he flicked his lighter and licked it with his tongue.

The small crowd negated any sightline issues – there was more than enough room for everyone on the dance floor. Sound was good, but clarity isn’t Perry’s aim. He mixes everything into a large, murky soup. Although instruments were discernable, his voice wasn’t. Drenched in artificial echo and natural patios it was hard to make out what he was saying.

It wasn’t difficult to figure out what Perry wanted, though. Jah and love, sure, but also lots of dancing and movement. Once Perry threw down the gauntlet, an unspoken agreement was struck: You give me what I want, and I’ll give you what you came for. Although it took longer than either anticipated, both sides ultimately got what they wanted.

Setlist (as written, though not performed in this order): Secret Laboratory, Inspector Gadget, Jungle Safari, Roast Fish and Cornbread, Jah Live, Sun is Shining, One Drop, I Am A Mad Man, Devil Dead, Wait Inna Babylon, Kaya, Pum Pum

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