Lee “Scratch” Perry & Subatomic Sound System Lively Up Holyoke’s Gateway City Arts On Halloween (SHOW REVIEW)

While starters “Soul Tree” are playing their brand of Zappa-esque dub reggae, 82-year-old, Lee “Scratch” Perry with his three-piece band walk across the floor at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke, MA on 10/31. Unassuming, wading through the crowd is a mix of Halloween clad fans, Perry stops and points at my friend in a superhero outfit and laughs in approval (Perry has worn and been depicted in superhero outfits before).

Emch, the live sound mixer, and electronic creative of Subatomic Sound System, Perry’s touring band for the past 7 years, announces that this is a show about “All things dubwise” This is in commemoration of the 45th anniversary of Perry’s Blackboard Jungle, the first pure dub album, and this Holyoke show is the last stop on their fifteen city tour that began in Canada, across the country ending here.

Perry himself is wearing a bedazzled jacket, a sort of Liberace baseball jacket. His embroidered cap with pointed crystals on top has a portrait of former Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie, a messiah for the Rastafari on the front, and a feather on the side. His pants have printed celestial imagery. His hand painted red high tops also adorned with jewels, crystals and photo portraits, but this is not his Halloween outfit. Perry, a deeply spiritual and superstitious man wears his clothing as symbols and talismans. After the fire in his home studio in Switzerland in 2015, he lost many of his precious unique outfits, and, in response, many of his outfits he now wears have been created by his worldwide fans.

Lee “Scratch” Perry is one of the major figures of reggae, whose work has had an almost universal impact on mainstream musical culture. Back in the 1950s and 60s in Jamaica, Perry was experimenting with innovative makeshift techniques involving reversing of tape directions, and other acoustic and electronic treatments, even blowing ganja smoke on tapes.

On his 1968 track ”People Funny Boy,” he used one of the earliest examples of sampling on vinyl (a baby cry, which Stevie Wonder used in 1976 for ‘Isn’t She Lovely’). Add a distinct sound of repetition of Perry’s fragmented vocal phrases and he becomes a human beat. This track has also been credited as one of the first  to be called “reggae”. Moreover, sampling, heralded by Perry signaled the path for future music EDM, hip-hop, and pop, and reggaeton.

In the early 1970s his innovation, reputation, and pure drive to create or channel music , he eventually set up his own Black Ark  studios in 1973, and there released the classic dub album “Super Ape” in 1976. The studio burned down in 1983, and in interviews Perry claims responsibility due the negativity surrounding the studio.

But before that, a relatively unknown singer Bob Marley, worked with Perry’s band the Upsetters to eventually became the Wailers. Perry produces Bob Marley and the Wailers album “Soul Revelation”. With Perry’s own early hits, such as “Soul Rebel” and “Duppy Conqueror”, he became a go to figure as Jamaican artists producing songs such as “War ina Babylon” by Max Romeo and “Police and Thieves” by Junior Murvin, and then later a version with British punk band The Clash. Other artists seeking Perry’s sound include the hugely influential ambient musician Brian Eno, the Beastie Boys, Dieter Meier of Swiss tech-pop group Yello, The Orb, and Keith Richards. Lee Scratch Perry has a lot to answer for.

Watching him pace back and forth in slow motion with spliff and cocktail, he never stops moving, as if possessed by an unseen force. No doubt a shaman, he moves between the tangible, experiential, and unfathomable worlds of dub. His performance is an invitation to join him. In the presence of one of the great architects of reggae and dub, Perry sings  picking phrases and words that express the moment with his delirious patois. Like a conduit for a higher power, deviously intelligent with words, he is locked in rhythms but can still be unpredictable.

Am I boring you?… Well, let me bore you some more.” He suddenly asks. The crowd cheers.

Playing from his “Blackboard Jungle” album, Perry also slips into Bob Marley collaborations “Kaya” and the soulful and uplifting 1971 track “Sun is Shining.” Here the rhythms deepen with congo from percussionist Larry Macdonald, who has worked with some of the best socially aware musical influencers, Peter Tosh, Gil Scott Heron, and Bob Marley. Troy Simms offers haunting saxophone to balance the heavy bass of Emch and percussion. Other Perry classics follow, “Pop goes the Weasel”, “Zion Blood”, and “Happy Birthday.”

Perry’s energy is admirable, and seems to be able to do it all.  On stage he jumps, kicks, and punches. He is an ardent vegetarian, who once reprimanded me about the dangers of being vegan (his instagram posts go into detail regarding this). His heavy use of ganja and alcohol have been well-documented. However, tonight he barely smokes( on stage), but that doesn’t change the vibe nor the crowd’s predilection for it. Perry is a  genuine, deeply rooted yet cosmic, passionate, quirky, and entirely creative artist who reminds us about the possibilities of music as unifier of people. And, just to prove that humility can be one of his traits, he did not even mention the Black Album, his latest release from just a few weeks ago – go figure.


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