Some artists have such weighty reputations they start to define and, at worst, confine them.
Take Lee Perry as an example. The veteran Jamaican producer and songwriter’s eccentric behaviour (burning down his legendary Kingston studio the Black Ark ranks high on an illustrious list of unfathomable acts), peculiar pronouncements (vampires and Babylon have tended to feature prominently) and insatiable taste for oddness (sporting a mirrored hat, hair dyed red and a coat sinking under the weight of decals, those expecting Perry to uphold his habit for outlandish wardrobe choices aren’t let down tonight) have accrued such a legendary status that some might well demand their money back if the septuagenarian many refer to as ‘Scratch’ came on stage and did a controlled, professional set.
That is most certainly not the case tonight. Following a spirited set of live mixing from the Mad Professor, the band launch into Max Romeo’s timeless classic Chase The Devil, produced and co-written by Perry during his creative peak in the 70s, when he managed to cook up complex soundscapes with primitive equipment, transforming dub into a vibrant art form in the process.
Having just stepped on stage to huge applause from the sold-out Brudenell, Perry has other ideas. Strange ideas. Wondering around the stage, he grabs a toy duck held aloft by a fan and goes off on a cosmic rant about ducks, iron moose, Red Bull and, er, things that rhyme with duck. A similar pattern follows: the well-honed, four-piece band – a marked improvement from a Leeds show some years ago when Perry was accompanied by musicians who had seemingly never met each other or reggae music before – strike up a stone-cold classic that Perry helped bring into the world, only for the star of the show to launch into a rhyming monologue about whatever happens to be coursing through his ganja-coated brain.
The enthusiastic reception suggests this is what we expect. Much like Mark E Smith, Perry is by now known for his contrarian unwillingness or inability to please the crowd with the hits. Unlike the cantankerous Fall mainstay, however, Perry is charm personified, a born entertainer who works the crowd tirelessly.
It’s this willingness to interact with and engage the crowd that keeps the momentum going, even when the messages Perry’s trying to get across get so baffling you’d half-expect the band to silently pray he’d simply just get on with it and sing the song. Do Perry’s improvised stream-of-consciousness rapping match his immense achievements as the architect of a distinctly playful brand of dub and producer and/or co-writer of such colossal masterpieces of Jamaican – or any – music as Max Romeo’s War In A Babylon, Heart Of The Congos or the early and, to many, most resonant recordings by Bob Marley & The Wailers? Of course not. It’d be criminal if the bonkers persona of latter-day Perry eclipsed the fact that he’s one of the rare musicians who deserves to be called a genius.
However, it’s inspiring to see Perry personify the same eccentric, mischievous spirit that fired up his greatest recordings just a few days short of his 80th birthday, after 50-odd years in the music business.