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Gary Lucas: Action guitarist
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., April 17, 2001) - Gary Lucas has been called a "neo-expressionist guitarist." It's as apt a description as any for the painterly approach the Grammy-nominated pop songwriter (for Joan Osborne's "Spider Web") brings to his singular interpretations of traditional folk, blues, Chinese pop, European classical and Jewish spiritual music, as well as to his original compositions, many written for TV and film.

"I like to paint pictures when I play," said Lucas -- who brings his one-man "guitar jamboree" to Club Helsinki this Friday, April 20, at 9 -- in a recent phone interview from his New York apartment. "I like to fling a lot of paint around. I let my inner child make the decisions. My ear opens and closes automatically. I don't really consciously govern, choosing or rejecting anything.

"At the end of the day, it's all words, though. I'd hope that people would be grabbed viscerally and drawn in by the music. You can get all intellectual about it, but in the end it's pretty gritty and gutbucket in approach."

It is perhaps the unusual combination of intellectualism and visceral grit that has so characterized Lucas's work since he came to fame initially as the last guitarist in Captain Beefheart's band. The Yale University-educated English major made his professional concert debut in 1973 as part of an orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein in the European premiere of his "Mass."

Lucas spent 13 years as an advertising copywriter for Columbia Records, churning out hype for the likes of Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and the Clash, before launching his career as a solo guitarist in a legendary sold-out show at New York's Knitting Factory, then a relatively new and unknown venue, soon to become the temple of the downtown avant-garde. (Lucas returns there this Sunday with his art-rock trio, Gods and Monsters, whose members have at one time or another included Matthew Sweet, Mary Margaret O'Hara and the late Jeff Buckley.)

Six months later, he was headlining the Berlin Jazz Festival, where on the 50th anniversary of the Night of Broken Glass (the pogrom in which thousands of synagogues and Jewish-owned business in Germany were destroyed and nearly a hundred Jews murdered, signaling the beginning of the Holocaust), he stunned the audience with an unannounced composition he called "Verklarte Kristallnacht."

A knowing reference to Arnold Schoenberg's "Verklarte Nacht," the piece ironically juxtaposed the Israeli national anthem, "Hatikvah," with phrases from "Deutschland Uber Alles," amid wild electronic shrieks and noise. The next day the papers ran a picture of Lucas with the triumphant headline, "It is Lucas!"

"Verklarte Kristallnacht" is among the pieces Lucas is expected to perform tonight in honor of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Labeled a "guitarrorist" for his shrapnel-like, exploding-note attack and his habit of composing scores for news documentaries about murder and violence (among them "Unabomber," "Who Killed Martin Luther King?" and "Rebirth: Untold Stories of the Oklahoma City Bombing"), Lucas is also the creator of a gentle, quirky album of children's songs based on Jewish holiday and cultural themes.

Lucas has also recorded albums of 1930s Chinese pop music, avant-garde film music (he performed his original soundtrack to the classic German silent film, "The Golem," at Mass MoCA last summer), acoustic guitar tunes, radical Jewish culture, and rock music. His most recent recording is "No Knowledge of Music Required," an album of psychedelic bluegrass recorded with Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders under the name The Du-Tels. Asked to pinpoint one overall, unifying esthetic running throughout his various projects, Lucas said, "I like to have an element of blues in everything I do - even the Chinese and the Wagner. And Jewish music is very bluesy, too. Also I really like unusual, otherworldly feelings that I generate when I play."

For solo concerts like tonight's show at Helsinki, Lucas draws from a performance repertoire of over 300 pieces, including folk, blues, Jewish, Chinese, and Wagner. "It's sort of a virtual history of guitar styles. I sort of sift through the whole corpus of Western and Eastern music and make it my own, run it through the Gary Lucas wringer.

"It touches all bases of my esthetic; it's like an overview, sort of like a little mini-tour through 'Improve the Shining Hour'," said Lucas, referring to last year's excellent, 20-year retrospective of his recorded output, which includes collaborations with Nick Cave, David Johansen, DJ Spooky and Richard Barone, as well as Lucas's own original singer-songwriter material.

In addition to "Improve the Shining Hour," his solo albums include "Gods and Monsters" (also the name of his band), "Bad Boys of the Arctic," "Evangeline," "Busy Being Born" and "Skeleton at the Feast," which includes music for "The Golem."

As to his unique, orchestral approach to his instrument, equally influenced by American country-blues and British electric-blues guitarists as well as a host of other styles, Lucas said, "I'm really an enemy of standard issue licks and guitar heroism brought to you by large corporations. To me it's too athletic, like gym rats pumping, the Van Halen school of guitar heroics.

"I'm into using guitar as a magic wand, a way to transport people into other worlds. I look at the guitar as a little six-string orchestra. Through the combination of different chords and harmonies and fingerings and finger-picking and occasionally some electronic modification I'm able to conjure up the sound of electronic symphonies."

Lucas draws on traditional guitar genres but sets them in new and sometimes surprising contexts. "I recontextualize the guitar, playing blues-inflected runs over a psychedelic landscape, swirling with sounds and colors. It's new and different. I like the idea of being able to conjure up new worlds in sound."

Lucas is also very conscious of his moral responsibility as an artist and performer. "Guitars can be dangerous if not played right. For one, they can hurt people's eardrums. But they're dangerous in lots of other ways. They' re injurious to your mental health and spiritual growth if you hear bad guitar. I think I'm a very tasteful guitarist in my way, although I occasionally veer into excess."

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 20, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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