It's too easy to say there's no one like Joseph Arthur. Singer, songwriter, gifted pianist, and astounding guitarist, he's also a painter and designer. From Akron, and based in Brooklyn, he has played a New Year's Day night show at City Winery NYC since 2000. New York should be damn grateful. Arthur is a superb performer, adored by his audiences, and a passionate artist who incorporates loops and leaps, painting and poetry into his evenings welcoming us to the next page torn off a fresh calendar.
At this year's installment, Teddy Thompson opened the show with a beautiful, bleak set. His songs are perhaps even darker than those of his father, Richard; his manner with the audience is wry and appealing, both genial and guarded. On one song, "What's This?" — about a new love that's working out (sort of, and to the singer's mingled pleasure and distress) — he invited us to sing along. Our assigned lyrics included "Take you out anywhere / Tie you to the kitchen chair." He finished with "In My Arms." The video is bright; but listen to the words, and repetition of "Give me an easy way out." I'd swear that, singing this one live, he says "not" instead of "got" every time.
Arthur took the stage in dark glasses and an 18th-century style frock coat, on a happy rampage from the very start. His audience was far more diverse than those I've often seen at the Winery. I sat next to a woman just off a plane from France, who had hurried to meet friends there because they all love Arthur's music and painting. Musicians turned out to hear him — Willie Nile was at the next table. Arthur joked with the crowd, intermittently taking requests and good-naturedly shutting down those who wanted to engage him in prolonged conversation, including a table of smitten women sitting, literally, at his feet.
He treated us to new songs, and those to which most of the folks in the house knew all the words. Since the 1990s, when Peter Gabriel came across some of Arthur's jazz and championed his lyrics, Arthur has released 20 albums, including a gorgeous set of Lou Reed covers, a 2014 tribute featuring this gentle, lost, heartbreaking "Take A Walk On The Wild Side." In 2010, as one-third of Fistful of Mercy (the other two-thirds are Dhani Harrison and Ben Harper), Arthur recorded the harmonic beauty As I Call You Down.
"Let's stay in Loopville," he said, after incorporating loops as part of his one-man self-planned band. One triumphant loop he had just recorded on his phone, and plugged it into the multipurpose amp he also uses for percussion (Need a beat? Stamp on the amp). Arthur's ensuing rendition of George Michael's "Freedom" was the standout moment in the show for me.
At the piano Arthur cooled things down, or rather gentled the evening, with songs like "You Keep Hanging On." The frock coat was long gone, and the dark T-shirt he wore was soaked to the hem, bearing a pink-and-red painted heart on the chest from a moment when Arthur had turned his flying paintbrush on himself, crying out, "I'm all heart!" And he meant it. "I Miss The Zoo" turned itself inside out, into hard-on rock and roll. "The Ballad of Boogie Christ," with its wheeling wild lyrics, stopped the show. As it ended, Arthur grinned at us and said, proudly and also wistfully, "Now I'm gonna play my hit." We sighed with him; he'd been playing hits for hours. But we knew what was coming: "In The Sun," a bona-fide popular song, covered by Coldplay and Michael Stipe, and remixed by Justin Timberlake and will.i.am. I love the official video for this one, with Arthur as a John-Lennonesque angel with a book, strolling New York:
My advice to you, New Yorkers? Get yourselves to the Delancey on February 2 and hear Joseph Arthur live. You'll thank me. See you there.
Joseph Arthur, "The Campaign Song" (October 2016)