Human waste was just one of many things on the dub genius' mind Wednesday night at Tipitina's.
"I saw the devil and shit my pants."
Dub reggae genius Lee "Scratch" Perry talked a lot about shit Wednesday night at Tipitina's. "I love peace and I love shit," he proclaimed at one point. "I shit my head," he confessed in another. "Respect my shit," he commanded, and as near as I could tell, people did. There was a point about 15 minutes into the show when the first wave excitement wore off and Perry's stream of consciousness word flow became part of the decor and the crowd got casually loud, but it didn't last long. The live version of "Black Ark Vampires" flirted with dubstep--or the sound the word "dubstep" suggests--and the crowd's attention was fixed.
Live, Perry faces an uphill battle. Dub is a product of the studio, and he was the producer on many of the records he is best known for. But it's hard to sell tickets to watch him sit behind a soundboard, smoke weed, and tweak knobs while a faceless band grooves onstage, so his show will always disappoint those who want to hear The Upsetters' Super Ape live. Instead, in concert he is part prophet/part nutter--the guy who has babbled his own psychedelic reality and cosmology since the '90s. It doesn't have the clear power and effortless groove of his dub classics, but with the right musicians around him, Perry can still be powerful.
The Subatomic Sound System was the support he needed Wednesday. The bassist, percussionist, and DJ/melodica player didn't do dub as much as live remixes of his songs, and he did reach back to Super Ape for "Zion's Blood" to start the show. Perry's babble had nothing to do with that, and as often happened when the band dealt with classics, they opened up the original track until it became almost superfluous. They also performed versions of Max Romeo's "Chase the Devil" and "War Ina Babylon," and closed with a barely recognizable "Roast Fish and Cornbread," but in each case the Perry-produced classic was simply the starting place.
When Perry played the House of Blues in 2007 with dub producer Mad Professor at the soundboard, the show had a stronger dub vibe, but even he found it hard to subtract sounds from the mix. Mad Professor could add reverb and special effects, but he couldn't recreate the fluid process by which sounds enter and leave the mix in Perry's best work. Neither could the band Wednesday night, but with only a beautifully low, rumbling bass, congas and a melodica and a laptop, they could conjure up a spacious, trippy sound. Percussionist Larry McDonald played congas on some of Perry's Black Ark recordings, and his congas gave a natural, acoustic warmth to the sound that hearkened back to its analog roots--a plus since digital dub is the place where digital's coldness shows itself most clearly. Still, McDonald wasn't so rooted to tradition that he couldn't keep up when vibe became more electronic and DJ-friendly.
Throughout, Perry talked about many things. I heard "Illuminati," "The devils is dead," "Michelle Obama," "Satan" a number of times, and "I am LSD," and as mad as his flow could seem, it was clear that he was in control of it. He was amusing himself, free associating, punning, connecting dots, and stringing together thoughts in ways that made sense to him. It all felt spontaneous, but it probably wasn't. When the DJ signaled the band to wrap a song, Perry hit the ending with them.
The show didn't present the material that made his name, and a few people were clearly put off by the Perry who paced the stage and filled every minute of every song with words. But many legends are tweedier, more fossilized, and locked up in a stiffening past. Perry and his music connected with a much younger audience than his past would suggest he'd reach, and even if there's a lot of space between dub and dubstep, he was up to the task of bridging it.