MANHATTAN, NY—Raised in Akron, Ohio, Joseph Arthur began writing and playing music in his early teens, after inheriting an electronic keyboard from his aunt and taking piano lessons. While in high school, at age 16, he played bass in a blues band. Days after graduation in 1990, he moved with the band to Atlanta, Georgia, supporting himself with day jobs at a music store and a tattoo shop along with night gigs playing local clubs. In the mid-1990s, a demo tape of Arthur’s songs made its way to Peter Gabriel, who liked the lyrics and released Arthur’s first EPs and albums. Arthur released his 11th studio album, Lou: The Songs Of Lou Reed, on May 13, 2014.
Arthur is a unique singer-songwriter, in that he often appears solo, adding backing tracks by playing a guitar lick and looping it. The stage is also often a gallery of his artwork, and he paints yet another on a canvas as he recites his lyrics. All of this he did over two hours during his fifth annual New Year’s Day concert at City Winery, which was simulcast on Yahoo Live.
Halfway through the set, he recorded then looped several layers of guitars, took off his hat, jacket and scarf and painted on a blank canvas as he sang “I Miss The Zoo,” walked to center stage to create additional electronic sounds on his Theremin, and then returned to painting and singing. The set opened with “Robin,” a tribute to Robin Williams, and included four songs by the late Lou Reed. The original 90-minute set ended with two duets with opening act Chuck Prophet. The 45-minute encore consisted of seven songs, including “In The Sun,” which was covered by Gabriel for a Princess Diana tribute album and again a decade later by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and Coldplay’s Chris Martin in 2006 on a charity single to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina. Arthur spent a lot of time chatting to the audience, some of those chats as long as the subsequent song.
Overall, with such a long and varied presentation, some of Arthur’s mix of poetic lyrics with a layered sonic palette seemed to click majestically; on the other hand, a lot of the set meandered. Some of it was pleasant, some was more abrasive and jarring. It was as if individual songs stood out impressively by themselves, but the whole course was too much for one sitting.
Visit Joseph Arthur at josepharthur.com.