Early in the show, Lee "Scratch" Perry sang an impromptu version of "Happy Birthday to You" to the entire audience, before announcing that he was 75 years old. While the self proclaimed "Mighty Upsetter" might be three quarters of a century, he showed little evidence of his age during his two-and-a-half-hour set at Santa Cruz, Calif.'s Moe's Alley Dec. 11.
Those that have been following Perry for the past decade have been wondering if and when the pioneering producer will slow down. Although he created the most avant-garde and influential reggae in the '70s, did some recording with the Clash and recorded highly experimental solo tunes in the '80s and '90s, Perry's most recent albums seem to have featured little contribution from the artist himself, leaving the producer to do most of the heavy work. But while one could debate on whether he is phoning it in on some (but not all) of his last few albums or if he trusts his protegees to do the dirty work like so many of the great renaissance artistes, Perry made it quite clear that the stage is exactly where he wants to be…to the point where he literally had to be escorted off the stage due to running over time.
The setlist was standard of the modern Perry show, with equal weight given to his best known solo tracks and the masterworks he created at the Black Ark studio. But, unlike some of his other pick up backing bands, Perry's band at Moe's Alley, "the Reggae All-Stars" seemed to have a firm understanding of both Perry's eccentricities and legacy. While some Perry pickup bands run through almost muzak versions of his tunes, the Reggae All-Stars drove songs along with a forceful pace, but strategically kept a very heavy low end, giving Perry's proclamations appropriate gravitas. Even more interestingly, each of the songs played were expanded into extended versions, often with the first half being a standard take and the second half being a vibed-out dub retake. In fact, Perry and the band were riding the grooves so much, that the shortest running time for a song was eight minutes and the longest was 17.
Perry himself seemed to have unfathomably de-aged in the last five years. When he played San Francisco a few years ago, he seemed to mumble some of the lyrics, talk more than sing and walk back and forth across the stage. But, perhaps it was because Moe's Alley was packed, the stage was lower or the audience was receptive to Perry himself, the septuagenarian seemed to be as fiery as he was on his legendary explosive cut of "Heads of Government" from the Tibetan Freedom concert.
Gone was the mumbling, rambling mad man and in his place was a focused scientist who not only sang more forcefully and with greater purpose than he has in years, but tactically ad-libbed and twisted lyrics, seemingly examining the reaction of one word juxtaposed against another. Equally tactical was his unique dancing that alternated between skipping, doing the robot and zapping the audience with his fingers like a wizard.
At his left was a sampler, which he would use during the dub versions, calling forth thunder at his finger tips, chickens clucking and, perhaps in reference to his time working as a laborer at Negril, Jamaica, a rumbling Caterpillar tractor. Throughout the concert, Perry seemed to be removing objects from his multitudes of jackets, including a beeping keychain which he mixed into the music, a mint box with a Jesus cover and an orange Bic lighter.
As the sound experiments got wackier and wackier, Perry directed the audience to his unique wardrobe. Covered in baubles, mirrors and religious imagery from across the globe, he seemed to be as much a shaman as a trinket collector. But, much like a shaman, Perry seemed to have a great deal of reverence for each of the plastic wing-dings on his clothing, taking care to gently lift up and put down his hat, which must have weighed at least five pounds due to the six-inch mirrors on either side. He made special care to point out that one of his sneakers had the letters "IMF" stitched to them so that he was always "stomping on the international monetary fund."
But, while Perry seemed focused, as the show drew lengthier and lengthier, the audience seemed to grow weirder and weirder. About half way through the concert, a visibly intoxicated gentleman (and it wasn't just weed) slithered like the Grinch onto the stage, eventually kissing Perry's shoes and even putting his head between the Upsetter's legs. Two females got on stage and belly danced while Perry grooved alongside them. He even pulled on stage a young lady who was not as impaired as the two bellydancers and seemed more aware of the awkwardness of having so many guests on stage. It seems that the road manager wasn't doing his job, and the self-appointed guests remained on stage for the duration of the concert, for a total exposure time of over an hour.
Interestingly, Perry, who was in an extremely jovial mood during most of the night, didn't seem to mind the intrusion onto his space. In fact, he spent a fair amount of time slow dancing with the girls and letting them kiss him on the cheek. At 75, it seems the Upsetter has developed a thing for curvy girls and Asian girls. Startlingly, Perry didn't even really seem to mind when one of the zonked-out dudes gave him a peck on the cheek. Although Perry is by no means a normal anything, to the average male Jamaican, such contact could be considered highly offensive.
As the clock neared 1:30 a.m., Perry's road manager took the stage to inform him that it was time to go. After running through an extended version of "Duppy Conqueror," something unseen triggered in Perry, and he immediately turned to his right, and immediately began a string of insults aimed at either one of the two gentleman who went on stage, or his road manager with ire that seemed suitable for a half hour previously, but was puzzling at that juncture in the concert. The attack was equally surprising as Perry seemed to be having the time of his life for the entire concert previously.
But, because Perry's patois remains thick, and the two gentlemen were just completely spaced out, they (and the audience) remained completely oblivious that Perry was hurling some of the most severe insults in the Jamaican handbook in their direction. He capped his verbal attack by exclaiming "I just cannot stand fools!"
Perry then conducted a 10-minute lecture of his history in reggae, mixing the factual without he mythological, leaving much of the audience scratching their heads. By that time, the band had begun to pack up and Perry turned to the drummer and commanded, "Drummer! Wake up!"
The band closed out the set with a fiery version of "Natural Mystic Rhythm," with Perry mixing in new lyrics with nearly the same amount of bouncy energy he had some 150 minutes earlier. The contrast between the Upsetter and the audience (and even his tired band) was at its most evident at the concert's conclusion. Concertgoers trudged out the door, fighting to keep their eye lids open at 2:00 a.m., while Perry marched off the stage only after repeated pleas from his road manager. Upon surveying the sleepy 30-somethings in the parking lot and the re-charged 75-year-old on stage, one couldn't help but hear Perry's words echo from earlier in the night "Why should I grow up?"
-Happy Birthday to You
-Rastafari (w/ Baby Krishna interlude)
-Roast Fish and Cornbread
-Sun is Shining
-I am a Mad Man
-War Inna Babylon
(Lee Perry gets angry and rants for 15 minutes)
-Natural Mystic Rhythm