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While punk grandparents like the Ramones and Talking Heads become Hall of Fame royalty, don’t hold your rusty safety pin waiting for English punky-reggae proto-grrrl group the Slits to follow (not commercial enough, too quirky). Keeping their noise and spirit alive is their lead shrieker, Ari Up, who’s been making her way back into the limelight with a series of local performances.
When you see an Ari Up show, only expect that Ari will show up. Yes, she’ll be sporting mile-long dreadlocks and homemade outfits like her clear-wrap creations that should set off catwalk crazes. Yes, you will witness her mashing it up with her wily wobbly wail, banshee screams, and skanking/slamming groove. But no, Ari is usually not the star of her own show. Be prepared for a loosely strewn showcase where she ropes in rappers, toasters, poets, and musicians who appear and disappear in and out of the spotlight—in the meantime, she might be stalking the crowd with a mic or camera to document the event. Her full band—with a rhythm section, horns, and singers—may be there, or only bits and pieces. Sometimes this congeals into a wondrous collection of arts and artists, and sometimes it’s a bizarre mess. In her own benevolent way, it’s as much a deconstruction of the concept of a “concert” as the Public Image Ltd. riot gig so many years ago here. How much more punk can you get than that?
And punk she is, having been in the thick of things at the very start of it in ol’ Blighty, gallivanting around with then-friend, later-stepdad Johnny Rotten, who’s called her “a total individual as I’ve ever seen.” After leading the Slits in her tender teens, Ari shuttled between Brooklyn and Kingston for some two decades, once living in a tent on a small island off Jamaica. Her gypsy-like existence ended a few years ago, when she settled down (a little at least) to do New York appearances and work up new material. During her off years, she earned her reputation in Jamaica with an alter ego. There they don’t even know who “Ari” is—instead, they know her as “Medusa,” a sexy, butt-wiggling superstar, donning provocative, tight mini-outfits and putting on dancehall shows in nontourist areas.
For us at-home tourist Yanks, now is a prime time to experience her childlike, wild, goofy energy as she’s capping a new album back in Zion and prepping for a national tour to follow. If it isn’t past his bedtime, one likely guest will be her seven-year-old son, Wilton (who duets with her on the Voice’s Love Songs for New York benefit CD). At this rate, he may follow in his mum’s footsteps and start his own outrageous combo before he can drive. He can certainly be proud that, unlike much of the rest of the class of ’77, his mother hasn’t aimlessly juiced her legend. Even if he doesn’t get into the Hall of Fame either, he can take solace in his mom’s life as an example of how obscurity is sometimes its own reward.