The course of love, we are told, does not run smoothly, so it should be no surprise that the first American performance of Arthur Lee and Love’s “Forever Changes” concert had its problems. The very fact that the concert took place had to be considered a triumph for Lee, who’s known as much for his erratic behavior as his musical brilliance. But a less-than-perfect sound mix and unexpectedly weak vocals from Lee kept the evening from being a total success.
The highly anticipated tour was organized to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Love’s masterwork “Forever Changes.” The addition of an eight-piece string and horn section meant the album would be reproduced in all its sprawling symphonic glory. But from the first note, it was obvious something was amiss.
The warm-ups of “My Little Red Book” and “Orange Skies” came off as lackadaisical and rough as a sound check — out-of-tune guitars, missed cues, vocals buried in the mix. Once they moved into the “Forever Changes” material, the mix had improved considerably, but Lee (who looked eerily skeletal in a top hat and sunglasses) appeared oddly distracted. Hoarse and unable to hold a note, he approached the music like a jazz singer: Sometimes he advanced on the note from above, others below; occasionally, he’d sideswipe them. The effect — like hearing Jimmy Scott fronting a rock band — worked about a third of the time. “Daily Planet” pulsed with a raw emotion and “You Set the Scene” retained its widescreen majesty. But for “Old Man” and “Andmoreagain,” Lee’s performance felt disconnected from the music.
His mood wasn’t helped by the audience, who screamed out complaints, non sequiturs and song requests (the last hard to understand given the show’s announced intention of playing the album in order).
Oddly enough, when he returned for the encore, Lee had loosened up enough to deliver an impassioned “Live and Let Live” and “Cowboy Song” (with guest Jay Donnellan) and bring out Johnny Echols, Love’s original lead guitarist, for a searing “7 and 7 Is.”
Under the conditions, the musicians performed admirably. Mike Randle’s guitar playing navigated the music’s tricky twists and turns, and Rusty Squeezebox, given the unenviable position of trying to sing harmony with Lee’s eccentric phrasing and uncertain grasp of tonality, did the best he could. The string and horn players re-created the album’s wide range of textures and styles, swaying to the music with broad smiles on their faces.
The “Forever Changes” tour will appear at New York’s Town Hall on Thursday.