The inimitable Lee “Scratch” Perry captured live on February 19, 2002 at the Concorde 2 in Brighton.
When Lee “Scratch” Perry appeared at the Concorde 2 venue in Brighton in February 2002, the British audience had undoubtedly never seen anybody like him. But much of the music they’d heard would not have sounded the same without him.
As he begins the show wearing a fuzzy purple robe, massive jewelry and a hat festooned with mirrors and money, Perry conveys a self-invented regality. In his song “I Am a Madman,” he suggests that this kingdom may be inside his head. His legacy proves otherwise.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s Jamaica, Perry’s innovations as a producer helped create the branch of reggae known as dub. Using the studio as an instrument, Perry generated a range of swirling effects, stitched together tape splices and punched-up seemingly random instruments long before sampling existed. On his recordings, Perry also included sounds found in nature as well as his own mystical blessings. Numerous musicians sought his guidance, including Bob Marley. Hip-hop and electronic dance artists also owe a debt to the man who calls himself “The Upsetter” (among other titles).
At this show, Perry largely channels his delirious musical ideas into brilliantly imaginative freestyle toasting (the Jamaican antecedent to rap). With a raspy but tireless voice, he reconfigures the English language in the same manner that he manipulated mixing boards. Some of his shamanic delivery forges new connections for words that only sound alike (for example, “exercise” and “exodus”). Other times, he delivers political critiques, railing at the International Monetary Fund or declaring, “Hear this news flash: George Bush is running from Scratch.” Nodding to his roots in the Jamaican countryside, Perry also channels animal voices, going as far as imitating a lion. And he embraces contradictions, such as including a lengthy monologue inveighing against abundant sexuality while performing a track titled “Doctor Dick.”
With an alien in the cockpit, it takes a team to pilot the ship.
Amid Perry’s otherworldly declarations, his band remains grounded. These musicians knew his legacy before dub — going back to the mid-1960s Jamaican rocksteady era — and how to build on its offbeats, known as “skank” rhythm. This is also the same group that accompanied Perry on his 2002 album, “Jamaican E.T.,” whose Grammy win finally brought him some establishment acceptance. Throughout the concert, the rhythm section’s consistent groove balances Perry’s verbal flights. In other words, with an alien in the cockpit, it takes a team to pilot the ship.
That backbone — guitarist Anthony Harty, bassist Nick Welsh and drummer Al Fletcher — locks in a skank rhythm at the start of “French Connection,” which becomes the foundation for Perry’s discursive call for vegetarianism. When the group performs Perry’s 1968 rocksteady production “Tighten Up,” Leigh Malin’s saxophone combines with Sharon and Michelle Naylor’s backing vocals to capture that era’s sound, lending Perry the freedom to pursue scat-style singing while continuing to invoke the merits of ganja. The throwback theme arises again as the band plays the melody to “Jungle Lion” (from 1973, and appropriated from Al Green’s “Love and Happiness”). Similarly, while the group conjures late-’60s Jamaica on “Rub and Squeeze,” Perry reemerges onstage to deliver free verse while sporting a Superman outfit with fake musculature and what looks like a red diaper.
Perhaps, as he declares, Perry may be as out of his mind. But consider: He’s now in his mid-80s and living comfortably in Switzerland while many of his colleagues in the Jamaican music industry met untimely ends. This Upsetter might actually be omniscient.
“Live in Brighton Concorde” Setlist
I Am a Madman
Station Underground News
People Funny Boy
Rub and Squeeze
The Thanks We Get
Aaron Cohen teaches humanities at City Colleges of Chicago and writes for numerous publications, including the Chicago Tribune, DownBeat and Chicago Reader. He is the author of “Move on Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power” (University of Chicago Press), which looks at the social and musical changes that shaped R&B in his hometown during the 1960s and 1970s. His first book, “Amazing Grace” (Bloomsbury), analyzes Aretha Franklin’s soul-gospel album. Cohen has been a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar and is a two-time recipient of the Deems Taylor Award for outstanding music writing from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP).