It’s almost two years since Joseph Arthur’s last concert in the UK so I’m more than happy to be at The Borderline this Sunday evening to witness his long-awaited return. It’s my twenty-sixth time seeing Joseph, although if time-money-distance were no impediment it would be more. If I’m normally hyped-up with anticipation before these shows, then there’s an added excitement this time after a surprise invitation to write a feature for this magazine.
In those two years the multi-talented Joseph Arthur has been busy. Then he was touring his LP of Lou Reed covers with Mike Mills (R.E.M) and Bill Dobrow (The Black Crowes). Now he’s hot off the back of a short US tour with RNDM, an alternative-rock collaboration with Jeff Ament (Pearl Jam) and Richard Stuverud (Fastbacks/War Babies). RNDM had been on the road to promote their second album Ghost Riding.
In between Joseph found time to put out the self-released solo album Days Of Surrender – an album he recorded entirely by himself. Also a recognised painter and poet, his social feeds are strewn with his poetry and abstract art. He’ll even paint large canvases during his live shows. Joseph is a constant whirlwind of creativity!
This summer will see the release of The Family on Real World Records, a label that Joseph has a long history with. In the mid-90s a quirk of fate saw his early demo tape land in the hands of Peter Gabriel. After a personal call and audition, Joseph was soon signed to Real World and that was the home for his first three critically acclaimed albums and four EPs. The double album The Ballad of Boogie Christ marked his return to the label in 2013.
Following a delayed soundcheck Joseph generously spares a few minutes and we sit down to talk about his upcoming album. Joseph is quick to note the caption on the painting behind us that reads ‘IN THE BEGINNING’ which seemed like a good place to start.
The inspiration for The Family came when Joseph bought a 1912 Steinway Vertegrand and began composing songs on it – a process that he became totally immersed in, as described when he last spoke to RockShot Magazine in 2013. Joseph normally writes from guitar so piano was a new direction for him. “It was just something I did then and I haven’t written songs on the piano since. But I play it all the time and it’s used on almost every recording now, for example on Lou.”
Joseph gave the songs to renowned audio engineer Tchad Blake for mixing. “Tchad knows how to make things edgy and exciting. He’ll push things as far as he can without destroying them” says Joseph. “His intuition in matching emotion with sound and the decisions he makes about my music are something really special, so I hope I get a chance to work with him again.”
Tchad had previously mixed Joseph’s album Redemption’s Son and sequenced the Junkyard Hearts EPs so they already had a mutual respect for each other’s work. Over the years Joseph continued working on The Family and passing it round, but found that he wasn’t quite getting the response back that he wanted. “You always go through fear before you put things out or at least I do. You’re trying to gauge reactions, especially if you’re working in a vacuum.” He called on Tchad again to see if he would help edit and sequence it “Then it became something that I’m real proud about, I really like the way it flows now”.
Joseph’s lyrics speak of passion and pain, longing and loss so turning this to focus on the concept of ‘family’ seems utterly fitting to me. The songs are written from the perspective of various characters – a grandfather, a father, a mother singing to her son. Joseph interviewed his parents and used a few names and details from his own family history – “I found out some interesting stories, like my grandmother was actually born the day the Titanic sunk, but it’s not my real life story” he explains.
The songs are drawn from his observations and experiences. It’s clear that Joseph is excited to be putting this album out into the world. My personal anticipation for The Family, out 3rd June 2016, is running high for another captivating addition to a long line of Joseph Arthur releases. The first single from the album You Keep Hanging On came out recently, the piano co-stars in the accompanying video, and if the glowing reviews for the single are anything to go by I think this album will go far.
Joseph needs to relax and refuel, so it’s time to go back down to the venue to watch Jonny Kaplan & The UK Lazy Stars (feat. Rami Jaffee from The Wallflowers, Foo Fighters) open the night with a storming set of their LA-flavoured rock and blues to an enthusiastic reception. Rami and the band are good friends of Joseph’s who, luckily for us, are in town at the same time.
In the subterranean vault of The Borderline the near-capacity crowd is waiting for Joseph’s appearance. There’s a little trouble setting up the heavily loaded pedal board, compounded by a broken string on his orange Fender Strat during the first notes, but then we’re plunged into a brooding distorted-guitar cover of The Man Who Sold The World with weaving rhythmic guitar chords. ‘That’s Bowie’s, may he rest in peace’ adds Joseph in tribute.
An early request for In The Sun (‘What, already?!’) is bypassed for an impassioned harmonica and stompbox punctuated Mercedes. The lines that resonate strongly in this song ‘Always trying to keep yourself put together, always needing to fall apart’ were written for his sister on his first release Big City Secrets in 1997. The tempo slows for the delicate finger-picked Out On A Limb. Rami Jaffee is invited to the stage midway adding lilting accordion strains, then Joseph plays out with sampled beats overlaid by an exquisite guitar solo, the first of many this evening.
A tall and charismatic presence on stage, Joseph breaks for some humorous off-the-cuff banter. This allows time to reflect that in just three songs we’ve already been treated to a showcase of Joseph’s musical skills and his astounding vocal range; from eerie falsetto to gritty baritone to gentle musing. Next up he launches into beat poetry with I Miss The Zoo – a half-sung, half-spoken hailstorm of words over loops and Rami’s embellishments on the keys. Joseph reprimands the audience for clapping out of time, then forgets his lyrics halfway through. ‘F*** I Miss The Zoo, I’m sorry!’ he says as he gives up on the song, but all is readily forgiven.
He flies solo for the next few songs. Setting up loop samples by thumping on the guitar body as percussion and adding the melody line, he then floats haunting vocals on top for the romantic Maybe You. A rousing Travel As Equals with its chorus encouraging us to ‘Give it up to your destiny’ has everyone moving. Then a highlight, You Keep Hanging On – the beautiful new song from his upcoming album, The Family. Between the yearning verses Joseph harmonises with his own looped falsetto creating a multi-layered chorus to stunning effect. ‘There’s a high-degree of difficulty to that’ he explains and we believe him.
This gig is the last of three on a short jaunt to Europe and, being largely un-rehearsed, feels like it might crash at times, but Joseph pulls it back from the edge with his quick wit and dazzling talent. On this occasion, Joseph’s signature “one-man band” solo show is augmented by Rami Jaffee’s brilliant impromptu accompaniment.
Devil’s Broom, my favourite of the set, raises the roof with its powerful delivery and intense keyboard acrobatics from Rami. A need for salvation is a recurring theme in Joseph’s lyrics – ‘Since you’re gone ain’t nobody else gonna save me’ is a tortured cry from the scene of a messy breakup. This song is featured on the album Our Shadows Will Remain that was highly successful on its release in the UK in 2005.
Rami remains on stage for strong crowd favourites Honey And The Moon and Black Lexus. In between songs Joseph confesses to feeling nervous and relates some wisdom that Rickie Lee Jones imparted when they both appeared at a recent Bowie tribute show – ‘When people come to a show they don’t come to love you, they want you to love them’.
Further requests are invited and a shout rises up for Redemption’s Son which is duly rewarded. If Joseph needs any validation at that point then he need look no further than the enraptured faces around the room – so I’d have to disagree with Rickie!
Walk On The Wild Side and a breakneck rendition of Heroin follow on, taken from Joseph’s 2014 recordings of Lou Reed/V.U. covers in remembrance of his late friend. The loosely psychedelic Pledge of Allegiance comes from his last album, the 2015 self-released Days Of Surrender.
There’s another audience request for All The Old Heroes and Joseph declares this would be a ‘sure-fire fail’ harking back to his earlier lyrical amnesia. Despite his doubts it’s a total success and one of the standout moments of the evening.
It’s finally time for In The Sun, perhaps Joseph’s best-loved and most widely-known song from its use in TV and movie soundtracks. Then, with the curfew already extended for his almost 2 hour set, the loops of Crying Like A Man play on as Joseph exits and waves goodbye to the crowd.
Joseph Arthur continues to raise his game as a performer, moving through tender ballads to aching guitar solos and pounding rock numbers. The sound wasn’t perfect, there was no formulated setlist, some lyrics were fluffed, but by the end we had been on an exhilarating and emotional rollercoaster ride of varied selections across Joseph’s prolific output. Like his beat poetry it was a kind of stream-of-consciousness show, as if we’d been allowed to tap into Joseph’s slightly chaotic persona for this short time. Willing to take risks and show his vulnerability “Expect the unexpected” could be the byword for Joseph’s shows. I’m already looking forward to the next one – I hope to see you there!
Feature by Helen Fairhurst and photography by Edyta K and Imelda Michalczyk.
Joseph Arthur played at The Borderline, London on Sunday 17th April 2016.
Joseph was interview by Imelda Michalczyk in 2013 and you can read it here https://rockshotmagazine.com/8879/interview-joseph-arthur-ballad-joseph-arthur/