Joseph Arthur’s prolificacy is intimidating — and sometimes unwieldy. Onstage at City Winery, he was a one-man band, painter, singer/songwriter, pianist, off-the-cuff humorist and collaborator suffering from jet lag. The shaggy troubadour summed it up with a quick confession to the crowd while searching for a misplaced capo for his guitar: “I’m struggling up here, y’all.” But Arthur’s wide-ranging talent and frankness still made for a charmingly shambolic show with flashes of intense wonder on his best songs and in his best moments.
Arthur’s shaggy-dog charm and humor belies often spiritual, deeply felt songs and a pointed wit. In a meandering two-hour set — a length that surprised even the artist, and found some less hardy souls ducking out early as Arthur laughingly called the departees out from the stage — he tackled more than fifteen songs from the 22+ albums and EPs he’s released since the mid-Nineties.
Using instrumental loops/tracks to back his guitar and harmonica work, songs like “Famous Friends Along the Coast” — “You try to get some sleep, the spirit world has prepared it’s attack” he sings — are literate, lilting and lovely, his left foot often providing the heavy-stomp drum track. Arthur’s sometimes-Lou Reed-ish inflections are not unexpected: 2014 saw the release of his homage, Lou: The Songs of Lou Reed, and at this show, Arthur covered “Walk on the Wild Side” with a beautiful pathos (and help from opening act, the powerful Scottish chanteuse Angela McClusky, and her husband/bandmate, multi-instrumentalist Paul Cantelon).
At times, Arthur’s performance was broad brush strokes, both literally and figuratively. As of late, he’s taken to painting onstage while singing, and tonight’s canvas, as befitting the venue, was a wine barrel. As he set the backing tracks and put down his electric guitar, Arthur took his mic and painted the barrel and sang, contemplating his visual work while spewing his aural. It’s the fine lines where he shines: The bold sing/speaking of the winning “Travel As Equals” and the quietly dramatic retro-timelessness “Currency of Love” are as memorable as the major hits they should have been. Other standouts included “I Used to Know How to Walk on Water,” with horn-guitar counterpoints, and the genius, self-referential stomp of “Ballad of Boogie Christ.” (Sense a theme? Cue Soundgarden’s “Jesus Christ Pose.”) Requests were taken, lyrics were looked up on a phone, Facebook followers’ posts were invoked, songs were stopped and started — the evening was somewhat of a free-for-all, but not necessarily an unwelcome change from most artist’s usual musical approach of writing a set list and playing it night after night.
While’s Arthur is as much a beat poet/artist as he is a singer/songwriter despite this show’s sometimes loose, rehearsal-like feel, at the end, the audience leapt to their feet in appreciation, grateful for the unvarnished glimpse of the person and process behind the songs. His insouciance may be studied — or not — but the world is his canvas, and whether Arthur paints with words, music or a brush, the end result is sublime.