The Essential… Gary Lucas (reviewed by Dave Franklin)

With a lot of artists, it is easy to set the scene before heading off into a the rabbit hole of writing a review. So many seem to have a definite direction of travel or a style or sound which is easy to sum up in a few short soundbites. But where do you start when faced with someone as mercurial, and indeed marvellous, as Gary Lucas? Do you dwell on his years spent avant-gardening as part of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band or concentrate on his own musical vehicle Gods and Monsters? Home in the fact that he has turned his eclectic hand to everything from rock to folk to jazz to world to electronica and beyond, that he has toured more than 40 countries, or in recent times that has sonically surfed the waters of the pandemic with thrice weekly on-line shows. Perhaps it is apposite to discuss the wealth of tributes and collaborations that he has been involved with? Or should you just play the record, dip the pen in the digital ink and see what flows forth?

Thankfully The Essential Gary Lucas, as the name should imply, is an overview of his musical output over the last forty or so years so there is plenty to talk about.

It takes one complete CD to do justice to Gods and Monsters alone, a fairly fluid band which gave a home to everyone from Talking Head’s Jerry Harrison, Television’s Billy Ficca and Ernie Brooks, a Modern Lover no less, amongst many others. Chosen as a collection of Lucas own favourite musical moments it kicks off with Fata Morgana a song which quickly paves the way for the complex and curious musical arrangements to follow. The neat thing about the songs showcased is that they are both “musicians music” and still wonderfully accessible. Those in the know will appreciate the techniques and sonic choices being made, the rest of us will just be bowled over by how unique and often awesomely odd the music is.

Let’s Go Swimming is one of the earlier songs to be included, is live and comes at the listener as a frantic bundle of country music energy and folk intricacy fuelled by some incendiary bass lines and by contrast Follow shows a more understated moment, hypnotic and more conventional. Relatively speaking.

The second CD is titled Solo, Rarities and Collaboration and the fact that it kicks off with a cover of All Along The Watchtower rendered into Mandarin complete with the sounds of traditional Chinese musical motifs bleeding into western rock and roll, reminds us just how wide ranging and imaginative an artist we are dealing with here. Evening Bell reminds us of the technicalities and technique with which Lucas made his name back in the day, Two Roads is described by the artist himself as psychedelic Hungarian folk music…and why not….and Life Kills sees him hook up with Messrs. Vega and Rev….aka Suicide, to make eldritch, urban ghost music.

It’s a majestic and masterful collection, one which covers so much ground creatively whilst musically eschewing the norms of rock and roll, avoiding the mainstream cliches and embracing every style and sound, genre and geography, era and urge that is sonically possible. And when he has exhausted everything that such a playground has to offer, well, he just builds a new playground and carries on having the time of his life.

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