Lee Perry Live
I am not a Lee Scratch Perry connoisseur by any means and prior to yesterday I had heard perhaps a dozen tracks of his. However I liked what I had heard so far and had read much of his skill, so it was with a great deal of excitement that I ascended upon the Prince of Wales, a trendy nightclub/pub on trendy Fitzroy Street in trendy St Kilda, where the man himself was performing live along with the legendary Mad Professor.
The gig was held upstairs in the large bandroom. The décor and layout is fairly typical of these kinds of nightclubs from what little I have experienced, with generally sombre lighting and two brightly lit up bars. Coloured lights play on the crowd as they dance near the stage, which is in a corner of the room. Above it hung a six-metre plastic model of a spliff.
The place was packed, tickets having sold out weeks before, and it took us a while to navigate our way to the pit near the stage where a local DJ called Jesse I (who hosts a reggae show on PBS) was spinning a large collection of original 7-inches which he had obtained on a recent trip to Jamaica. This was seriously good, old reggae which had the already revved crowd dancing and cheering for more. Several times Jesse-I attempted some rub-a-dub, in a Jamaican accent. I don’t know what the real Jamaicans present thought about this, but the Mad Professor shot several glances (glares?) towards the pair. I thought it was a little weird, really, and it was made worse by the fact that Jesse I is a shithouse singer, but on the other hand I don’t know if it would have been listenable in an Australian accent. I think it’s inexcusable for Australian hip-hop artists to try and sound as if they’re from Harlem but I suppose this is a little different.
During all this the MC came on and started setting things up, and was shortly joined by Mad Professor who was greeted with cheers and applause by all of us, who were jumping around with anticipation. Reggae concerts attract the best crowds, and the atmosphere was one of joyful excitement. There was more ganga smoking going on than I had seen since the Tryo concert I attended in 1999 and complete strangers were sharing spliffs and passing pipes, which was of course conductive to a genial atmosphere. Present was an interesting mixture of ages and social groups, though probably most people were aged 18-25. The crowd was also far more ethnically diverse than at most concerts I’ve been to in Melbourne.
After a round of Respect!s to all, Jesse-I left the stage and Mad Professor kicked in. I am an awkward and unwilling dancer but I found to my delight that I was easily able to throw off my concerns when the music started. The crowd danced together, each person at their own speed and with no pressure to conform but we were so close together and the vibe was so good that we were really dancing as one. Of course, we were also scanning the stage anxiously for the one we were all here to see. When he did enter, surrounded by a cloud of smoke which billowed as he flung open the black curtain, I gasped, and I was not alone.
With his short, wiry frame, white beard, wrinkles and ghostly staring eyes he resembled nothing more than the leader of some kind of bizarre island cult who has worked himself into a trance and wants his followers to join him, knows they will try but can never really understand what he is on about. He was dressed in a blue vinyl jacket and black pants and was wearing a cap, all of which were covered with badges and medallions. The clothes fit him badly and at first glance he appeared frail. It was obvious, however, that this was not the case. His steps were strong and confident and when he moved in time to the music it was undeniable that both body and mind were present and working well enough.
And in one hand he carried a microphone which was also a bong! With three cones! It was classic. After our momentary amazement as his appearance we went wild – the dancing became more frenzied, arms were pointed towards the stage and we stamped our feet. Lee Scratch Perry gazed out at the crowd as the music became more intense and raised his arms, launching into song. I would have thought it impossible for there to be even more marijuana being consumed but every third person was lighting up a reefer, clouds of smoke billowing above the stage as Lee Scratch Perry held his Zippo aloft while the ash in the cones glowed red and we danced, following his limber movements which a man his age should have been incapable of.
He was on an entirely different plane to the rest of us. He incanted rather than sang, as if he was reading from a religious text, and would occasionally mumble about Jesus or Jah or Allah or God (no mention of aliens however). During a lull in the crazy sounds that the Mad Professor was making he declared:
“I can say anything. But there is one thing I will not say.
“I will not say that I am Evil. For I am not Evil. Down with Evil.
“Chant with me. DOWN WITH EVIL. DOWN WITH EVIL.”
We chanted, and though we laughed and raised our eyebrows at each other we really were hanging on to his every word, and the chanting did cast somewhat of a spell over us. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that he was taking himself too seriously or that he was so nutted that he was a pain to watch – on the contrary, as he strutted around and led us in the dancing he kept us enthralled throughout, and he did seem to be enjoying himself and we were laughing together. Clearly the man is insane and there were very few displays of lucidity throughout the performance, but his energy and desire are still very much alive and he is expert in working a crowd.
I think its fair to say that the whole crowd was completely immersed in the music and Perry’s voice and that we were all shocked at how quickly time had gone when he went off after about an hour. Mad Professor played on though, and it was almost as good, really. I’d enjoyed the music in the leadup to the main act but what Perry and Mad Professor had made was so much more layered and detailed that I was really in a trance, so that whilst I was fully functioning on the physical plane I was acting solely out of habit, my mind occupied by the music. The acoustics of the place are first rate, and though the vibrations of the bass could be felt across the whole room dancing right next to the stage did not result in deafness.
A screen to the far right of the stage displayed various scenes of people in third world countries, monkeys at a temple in India and live shots of what was happening on stage, with some rather uninteresting special effects being added in real time by an old white guy with a camcorder. The MC did an excellent job of revving up the crowd, jumping around the stage and dancing with seemingly unlimited energy. He was a short stocky guy with a pot belly who looked like he really shouldn’t be able to dance so well, and he received good feedback from the crowd, seemingly pleased that we were such willing participants. Lee Perry returned, of course, pulling a cone through his microphone and holding an immense joint which he passed around. He held his Zippo aloft once more then bent down to the crowd, lighting joints. The crowd was still well in the mood and well pleased at his return, and he stuck around for a while longer. Mad Professor, fuelled by apples, showed no signs of stopping and most of the crowd was still dancing as we emerged into the freezing wind blowing across Port Phillip Bay an hour later.
We had not been disappointed, though the music differed somewhat from what I had expected. It seems that I had mostly heard Perry’s older work, and almost nothing of Mad Professor. It is too bad that Perry did not show his skills on the mixer – perhaps he is past it, or just sick of it. On the other hand, Mad Professor’s nuttiness was more than adequate compensation, and I suppose if Perry had played we wouldn’t have had the pleasure of his crazy rants and chants right in front of us.