Wednesday night marked the fourth time I’ve seen Joseph Arthur live. Each experience has been a different Arthur iteration – from upwards of four on stage to this solo appearance. He knows how to make playing guitar look like the most gorgeous act on the planet while also understanding the value of a syllable. At Tin Angel this week it was less about the showmanship and more about the lyrics of not only him but also Lou Reed. And for about 90 minutes, Arthur showed why he is a nugget of rock gold.
Straddling a stool and having lyric sheets abound (this was the first show he was doing all but one of the Reed songs live), Arthur played the folk poet part well. He frontloaded the show with Reed covers, opening with five of them. It may seem odd but it worked; Arthur frames the intimacy with the familiar unfamiliar of covers and then takes the audience on a walk with his wild side. How apt it was that he opened with “Walk On the Wild Side.” With Arthur condensing a song so well known for the backing vocals into one of just him alone showed off his vocal and music abilities. The changing emphasis of lyrics and tone made the songs his own. And to jump from “Wild Side” to “Heroin” exemplified Reed’s brilliant breadth and Arthur’s understanding of a great setlist.
If the applause was oddly lukewarm for the Reed covers, the crowd, which seemed to be mostly made up of fervent Arthur aficionados, let loose when he broke into his catalog. Drawing mostly from his brilliant 2013 record The Ballad of Boogie Christ, he showed how he excels at understanding the quirks and eccentricities of the world, especially on the stream-of-consciousness “I Miss the Zoo.” And when Arthur did pause, like when lyrics escaped him on the title track of Boogie Christ, he was charmingly self-deprecating.
Rain did not keep away a three-quarters full room from Arthur, who even popped out chestnuts like “Tattoo” from his second album Come to Where I’m From and “You’re So True,” which is strangely from the Shrek 2 soundtrack. The acoustics of Tin Angel carried Arthur’s voice, guitar, and occasional harmonica from front to the very back. And this is just like Arthur, a musician who can appeal to the fan and the newbie with his rarified sense of humanity in the bustling 21st century. He sees the value in playfully interacting with giants of culture – Christ and Lou Reed – and bringing them back to down to Earth for us all to admire.
Lou will be released on May 13.