The word genius is much overused in the world of music.  In truth there have been no more than a handful of people that the term can accurately be applied to since the birth of rock and roll.  We could spend all day arguing about who those people might be, but the fact that Lee Perry ranks amongst them is unarguable.

Perry’s production work from the late 1960s onward not only helped to create reggae music but to revolutionise it; stripping tracks back to their bare bones, adding reverb, samples and sound effects to create “dub” mixes.  These techniques went on to be a huge influence in a range of musical genres from punk to acid house.

The legendarily eccentric Perry has combined his production work with a career as a solo performer. To be honest, my expectations for tonight’s show were not particularly high – half an hour of incoherent mumbling over a backing tape perhaps, but Perry is not getting any younger and I didn’t want to pass up up what might well be my only chance to see him do his thing.

Happily, it seems that my expectations will have to be at least partially revised; the stage is set up for a three piece band – guitar, bass and drums, augmented by some extra rhythms and sound effects provided by an Apple laptop.  As the lights din, a small suitcase is wheeled onto the stage to stand in front of the drums.  The purpose of this suitcase is not made clear during the gig but I later learn that it holds a variety of sacred artefacts and substances that are vital to a Perry performance.

The band strike up a tight rhythm.  After a few minutes, Perry’s disembodied vocals arrive from offstage.  Finally, he strolls onstage.  Wiry and limber, it’s hard to imagine that this is a man who celebrated his 84th birthday just the day before.  Wearing a hat encrusted with badges and baubles, trinkets and mirrors, His face – the face that launched a thousand spliffs, and then some – shimmering with glittery stars, Perry exudes a sense of otherness, a mystic sage from another place.  At the end of the first song we sing Happy Birthday to him.  He tells us that he loves us, we tell him we love him too.  Throughout the gig, gifts are exchanged: hats, bangles and beads and a bag of herb that Perry attempts, unsuccessfully, to open with his teeth while singing then places reverently on the suitcase.  At one point, Perry reaches down to shake my hand.  His handshake is light, his skin dry and papery.  This is the hand that produced The Wailers earliest albums; that rode the faders on The Heart Of The Congos, one of the greatest albums ever made.  I’m so lost in the moment that I almost don’t realise that I have a perfect opportunity to take a photo.  Fortunately, Perry makes it clear that he’s not going anywhere until I do.

Back to the music though.  There is an element of incoherent mumbling, of course there is, but there are also great versions of some classic Perry tunes like Police And Thieves, War In  A Babylon and Roast Fish & Corn Bread, in amongst some lesser known works from the Upsetter canon.  The band lay down a solid, supple groove throughout.  After almost two hours, the sacred suitcase is rolled away and Scratch takes his leave, looking like he could happily stay for another couple of hours.  Time spent in the presence of a legend; a true genius.  I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

John Scott

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