- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 10, 2005

Would it be impertinent to point out that Joseph Arthur had drooping “plumber’s pants” at his solo appearance at Iota Club & Cafe Thursday night? It was a farcical counterpoint to a deadly serious show that blended abstract art, tedious fumblings with a U-Haul trailer’s worth of electronic equipment and more than a few good songs tarnished by said fumblings.

Two more questions: When did talent become lowbrow? What arty sense of subversiveness compels an obviously gifted singer-songwriter such as Mr. Arthur to place a squall of noise between himself, his music and his audience?

He started like a house of burning embers with a superior cover of Johnny Thunder’s “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.”

The Akron, Ohio native, discovered and nurtured by Peter Gabriel and instilled with the same sense of musical adventure, overcompensates for a lack of touring band mates. With an array of stomp-boxes, pedals and rack-mounted gewgaws at his disposal, Mr. Arthur layered guitar parts, vocal harmonies and (by thumping on his guitar like a bongo) percussion into a digital spin cycle.

Music for Generation X-Box: It’s fascinating at first, like watching a glass blower at one of those open-air folk museums. Then it becomes a guided tour of a sausage-making factory, made worse by Mr. Arthur’s penchant for tinnitus-inducing tone-benders. The lush “Can’t Exist,” from his latest LP, “Our Shadows Will Remain,” became an indulgent shambles. For “Crying Like a Man,” he smashed cymbals and chucked a snare drum across the stage to ironically emphasize the line “I won’t wake you up.”

The gearheads in the audience, of course, loved it. They peered onto the stage to see the brand secrets of his method. But one couldn’t help noticing, as well, the steady trickle of paying customers exiting over the course of the two-hour performance.

Have I mentioned that Mr. Arthur periodically painted during the show? Before the concert started, he’d done some preliminary work on a large charcoal sketch of mutant stick figures with crosses jammed into their skulls. But, no, the work was not yet finished. With backing from his digital loops, he sang freestyle while slathering oranges and pinks, and shaking a can of spray-paint.

During the simplest, most stirring moments of the performance, on songs like “Favourite Girl” and the blindingly good “Echo Park,” Mr. Arthur would peek askance at his painting, as though it were calling to him on some otherworldly frequency that becomes audible through boredom.

The thought occurred: Will he paint, or will he resist? What more would he do to drive away the bourgeoisie and their shallow insistence on simple melody and song structure?

His audience having dwindled to a sturdy few, even Mr. Arthur got bored with his X-Box games. For encores, he played relatively straightforward versions of “Honey and the Moon” (which has appeared on “The O.C.” soundtrack) and a cover of the Smiths’ “There is a Light that Never Goes Out.”

Yet Mr. Arthur proved the hard way that there’s another light that most certainly goes out.

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