Arthur Lee & Love
Royal Festival Hall, London
WEDNESDAY JANUARY 15, 2003
On paper, Arthur Lee is an unlikely recruit to the rock heritage industry. In a hilarious rant in NME recently, Lee claimed Brian Wilson, Mick Jagger and former Beatle "Paul McCarthy" all "stink". "I'm tired of playing that old stuff," he said, "I'm going to put Forever Changes out of people's minds with this new album I have. It's the best rock album there's ever going to be."
It's been noted before that Arthur Lee can be a little schizophrenic. Even so, the enthusiasm with which he is singing, "This is the time and life that I am living," as if 1968 never ended, still comes as something of a shock. For here is Lee and the latest of Love's countless incarnations (the LA band Baby Lemonade, ostensibly), plus string and horn sections, ploughing through the entirety of Forever Changes with a deftness and passion that would be unlikely in far keener revivalists.
Lee is, in a way, the luckiest and unluckiest of '60s rock legends. His complete lack of success for 30 years may have left him relatively poor and bitter, but it has also ensured that his artistic vision remains untainted by the commercial exigencies of the '70s and '80s. His cowboy hat, Stars & Stripes bandanna and white fringed shirt aren't historical props, they're the evidence of an aesthetic code that hasn't materially altered since February 1968, when he sat in the hills overlooking LA and contemplated the hippie dream, and society in general, beginning to fall apart.
Remarkably, the spirit of Forever Changes is sustained through this formal recital, right down to its deceitful prettiness, its prickly intimations of bad trips and imminent crashes. The show begins with Lee and his core band blasting through a suitably ragged selection, notably a needling version of "Your Mind And We Belong Together" that reveals his wounded soul vocals are miraculously undamaged. Then Forever Changes is performed, in order, from the mariachi fanfares of Bryan MacLean's "Alone Again Or" through to a devastating version of "You Set The Scene".
The obvious parallel is with Brian Wilson's Pet Sounds shows last year. But if Wilson's triumph was one of poignancy and a legacy reclaimed, Lee's success is more assertive, a display of musical virility that seems undimmed. The mixture of imprecise yearning and paranoia which characterises Forever Changes is perfectly reproduced, helped by the fact that Lee is far more attuned to these youthful anxieties than the average 57-year-old. Particularly outstanding are the incantations of "The Red Telephone", with the orchestra used sparingly and sensitively, never cluttering up the arrangements with slush. Eventually they troop off, and Lee returns with Baby Lemonade for another smash-and-grab raid on his archives that features a great, psych-garage hack through "My Flash On You", a moving "Always See Your Face" (plenty of Love Four Sail gets an airing), and a version of "Singing Cowboy" featuring Graham Coxon ("Gram Caxton!" announces Lee, bewildered or mischievous) on extra guitar. Finally, one of the fabled new songs is revealed, a bizarre kiss-off to the States and hymn of praise to the UK that features Lee animatedly conducting the orchestra and a bagpiper in full regalia. His happiness at playing new material is infectious, but unfortunately "My Anthem" is cursed by its peculiar resemblance to Slade's "Run Run Away"; not quite the quicksilver charmer we might have imagined.
Hence Lee's dilemma, one he's having to face much later than most of his contemporaries. How to reconcile an ongoing career when your fans—entirely justifiably on this evidence—will damn your new songs with, at best, polite tolerance? Lee's ingenuous trust in his genius and his faith in antiquated rock'n'roll values elevates this show far beyond historical re-enactment. But paradoxically, it may also compel him to see his own creative future unrealistically. "The time that I've been given's such a little while/And the things that I must do consist of more than style," he sings in the apposite "You Set The Scene". Still, after three decades of hardship, bitterness, trauma, even imprisonment, it'll be hard to begrudge him one more chance to prove himself.