Gary Lucas has toured Europe with Leonard Bernstein playing his Mass and was a member of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band in its final recording lineup (on Ice Cream for Crow, after a cameo on the previous Doc at the Radar Station). He has produced albums for eclecticist Peter Gordon and jazz saxist Tim Berne and is a mainstay of Manhattan’s downtown avant-rock scene. He also joined Joan Osborne on her Relish album and co-wrote songs that appeared on Jeff Buckley’s Grace. Most of which efforts manifest the salient fact here: he’s one mutha of a guitarist.
What makes Lucas so terrific is not just his technique, of which he has loads, but also his imagination, his openness to different musical forms (and ability to meld them) and his sense of humor. (In the notes to Skeleton at the Feast, Lucas calls Wyndham Lewis’ witticism that “laughter is the mind sneezing” a good description of his music.) Imagine a combination of John Fahey, Jeff Beck, Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix and James Williamson — sounds potentially disgusting, actually, but it’s as if Lucas has somehow gleaned all their best bits in simpatico fashion.
Skeleton at the Feast is Lucas live in a solo mode: on electric, National Steel and 12-string, both unadulterated and channeled through a maze of effects boxes, playing mostly his own blues-based (“Robert’s Johnson”) compositions, but also a medley of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Are You Experienced?” and “Hitchcocked,” which interprets/interpolates Bernard Herrmann’s themes from Vertigo and Psycho. The last half-hour of the album is a live recording of a superbly evocative score for the 1921 German silent film The Golem, which he composed with Walter Horn, who plays keyboards.
Gods and Monsters is the name of Lucas’ second album as well as his ever-changing band. That widely varying fluidity is the source of its — and Bad Boys of the Arctic‘s — strengths (when he is enhanced by his collaborators) and weaknesses (when their presence dominates or seems forced). Gods and Monsters features ex-Woodentops leader Rolo McGinty as well as cameos by Mekon Jon Langford, ex-Pere Ubu bassist Tony Maimone and Tackhead drummer Keith LeBlanc. It may be the best introduction to Lucas because it’s the most eclectic: some acoustic material, a clutch of tracks rooted in (but looking past) folk-blues, a flirtation with rap and splendid interpretations of Pink Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine” and, linked, Miles Davis’ “Jack Johnson” and Suicide’s “Ghostrider.”
Bad Boys of the Arctic is more of a Gods and Monsters band record (there’s even a live track from one of their gigs), but the cast of contributors is as extensive as before. Singing (which Lucas does on four tracks) is not his, er, strong suit, but he gets welcome lead vocals from Dina Emerson (bohemian siren) and Sonya Cohen (wistful young thing) on five tracks. Again, his exuberance carries the day; covers this time are radical reworkings of the late avant-cellist/vocalist Arthur Russell’s “Let’s Go Swimming” and Percy Grainger’s “Children’s March.”
The Killer Shrews is his collaboration with Langford and Maimone. Much rockier than any of Lucas’ albums, more esoteric than the Mekons and with greater funkified rhythmic drive than either, it’s a pleasant surprise for this kind of super-session. The verbiage ranges from smart (“Handfull of Gimme [And a Mouth Fulla Much Obliged]”) to just plain silly (“Bring Me the Fat in California”), but the riffs (even — gasp! — tunes) are generally catchy, and there’s gobs of enjoyably indulgent show-off guitaring by Lucas. The rip-roaring take on “The Brain From the Planet Eros” is a step up from the lo-fi version on Gods and Monsters. The vocalizing, mostly Langford’s, is homely but tolerable; Barbara Manning sings on two tracks.