“Can you fly like bacon?” asks Jamaican genius Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry to the Brudenell Social Club at the close of a scattershot Black Vest. It’s a nutty proclamation but one perfectly at home from the mouth of the man who discovered Bob Marley.
There’s a shade of Mark E Smith about his approach to live performance but the Upsetter, eighty-one this month, is luridly eccentric and spasmodically entertaining enough to forgive for his foibles. After all, few performers invite the audience mid-song to fondle their bottom or light their roll-up with such anomalous sincerity.
Perry’s work, as producer and artist, effectively form the Old Testament of dub; 1976’s Super Ape and 1978’s Return of the Super Ape are scriptures as hallowed to the genre as In the Court of the Crimson King is to progressive rock. His collaborations, from the Wailers to The Clash, the Beastie Boys to The Orb, are the stuff of legend – as was his burning of the iconic Black Ark studio to rid himself of “unclean spirits” and gangsters. He is a warped magician, a denizen of a musical mind ostensibly strafed across the cosmos, or perhaps permanently baked.
It’s these mythological peculiarities that draw fans into the cult of Perry; it is the music that they stay for. Known for his philosophical and frankly mad alt-lyricism when playing live, he surprisingly strays little across a set of mutated reggae compositions from his extensive canon. His half-murmured words on a swelling Super Ape demonstrate an oddly deft touch whilst a euphoric Happy Birthday is a finely realised slice of ganja funk. His four-piece band are tight too; they unfurl a free-flowing Satta Massagana early on and throw fiery fretwork over a pulsing I Am a Madman whilst their leader dances with three young women he has hauled on stage.
But even on restrained musical form, Perry still has a bizarre magic that enraptures the crowd. His moonstruck persona is riddled with surprises; removing his jacket adorned with Pac-Man ghosts, he is revealed to be wearing a vintage Leeds rugby league tracksuit. “Do you like my music?” he asks over an extended jam near the end. “Do you like my boots? Do you like my Bluetooths?”
Perry may not be the most conventional showman – but into his ninth decade, his refusal to stick to the rules is what he continues to draw fans into his ever-growing legend.