REVIEW: Joseph Arthur | Montreal (Canada) ARTV

In black suede boots as long in the foot as his lengthy near 20-year career, the prolific American music man, Joseph Arthur, towered over an intimate stage at Montreal, Canada’s ICI ARTV on July 17—literally and spiritually.

Photo by Martin Fourat
Photo by Danniel Oickle

Switching it up occasionally from singing seated in his chair, JOE hovered at 8 feet tall, stood atop the orange boxed lid for his pedal board. A pulpit like a bandstand, he assaulted it like a drum with his boots pounding several songs in percussive resonance while grinding the shit out of his Godin guitar.

Plugged in and fully electric, Arthur belted 13 songs from hushed tone smoothness to railing, tribal cries. He soared in sonic intensity singing the heart-wrenching, “angel of love, shine a light on us” from Redemption’s Son from the same titled album of 2002. He reached right over to the recent Ballad of Boogie Christ (2013), chanting “I need the saint of music, I need the saint of love” from Saint of Impossible Causes. Aweing the audience, he surpassed expectations of what we usually get from solo singer-songwriters alone on stage.

On the quieter numbers, Joseph Arthur’s poetic treatment of soul-wrenching subjects mesmerized listeners to paralysis. A panning glance around the room captured women’s face simultaneously smiling and teary-eyed, men’s gazes focused fiercely on the singer and mouthing emotively every word to the songs. Overall, a whole lot of electricity, feeling – release and fun.


Photo by Martin Fourat
Photo by Martin Fourat

The feeling part makes sense – Arthur from Akron, Ohio now Brooklyn, NYC is known for his heavy heart in poems and songs about vulnerability and salvation. Our Joseph, who arts in hellish havens, is at home painting some really spooky shit like skulls, bleeding hearts and outstretched hands this way shy of macabre. It suggests the guy is working something out, carrying a message. It’s this depth and inner-world richness that likely caught the ear of music icon Peter Gabriel who signed Arthur’s Vacancy album in 1997 to his Real World label.

His set list was an impressive range of songs from his illustrious discography from Come to Where I’m From (2000), Redemption’s Son (2002), Junkyard Hearts (2002), Our Shadows Will Remain (2004), Let’s Just Be (2007), The Graduation Ceremony (2011), The Ballad of Boogie Christ (2013) and the new Lou: The Songs of Lou Reed (2014). Newcomers to Joseph Arthur will find this selection from his ARTV Montreal show a comprehensive introduction to his discography and the Lou Reed covers a treat:

  • Chicago
  • Blue Lights in the Rearview
  • Sword Of Damocles – Externally
  • I Used To Know How to Walk on Water
  • Walk On the Wild Side
  • Ballad of Boogie Christ
  • Can’t Exist
  • Redemption’s Son
  • Honey and the Moon
  • Horses
  • Saint of Impossible Causes
  • Invisible Hands
  • In The Sun


As intense as his contemplations of suffering, though, is Joseph Arthur’s flair for the comical. This was in abundance at the Montreal gig. This is the same dude dancing silly in shorts and a poncho with Lonely Astronauts’ Kraig Jarret Johnson in video, singing Where Is My Van. The video is a plea to return his stolen bandvan and gear in New York City (true story). It was this quirkiness that commanded attention and split guts with hilarious technical mishaps with his jam (effects) pedals, empty apologies for sleep deprivation, honest confessions about getting ‘freaked out’ watching scary NOVA-PBS programs, and juicy tales of getting kicked out of bars but sneaking in the backdoor of NYC’s Winery to see Prince at 5:00 am.

Photo by Martin Fourat
Photo by Martin Fourat

This candid and lively delivery was a welcome surprise for strangers to his music whose You Tube searches introduce Arthur via melancholic numbers like Invisible Hands or the eclectic cacaphonic tracks like Creation or a Stain. The entire performance was also impressive given he admitted to having had only one hour of sleep. What he didn’t mention was he was busy at work in Chelsea, NYC the night before, unveiling his Electric Ladyland 2014 painting at Gallery 151. The unique $10,000 art piece is a collaboration between Joseph Arthur and photographer Spencer Tunick, showing now until September 1.

While yours truly is an avid Joseph Arthur fan since the late 90s, his wonderfully personable presence was a joyous detour from the tempestuous route I’d see him in before, especially telling his audience members to fuck off if they weren’t listening. “I’m pouring my fucking soul out here, man. Show some fucking respect,” he rightfully fumed in 2003 at the Mercury Lounge in Ottawa (Canada). No wonder he plays Montreal, instead!

A testament to Joseph Arthur’s obvious ‘change’ was my note pad upon which to write notes about the show. It was a teeny 2X3 pad of paper. My plan was to conceal it in my crotch lest Joseph Arthur see me reviewing his show and flip out. I was that afraid he would flair up! I risked an ass kicking for a couple of comments I made about his functional deficit with a certain looping technique. But he ran with the joke, even added to it by suggesting a t-shirt be made for ineptitude, citing “I used to be great” on the back. We laughed, we cried and we didn’t want to say goodbye.


His chilled out demeanor showed up in his faded t-shirt and ripped dreams, beard and hair overgrown. He perfects the informal delivery in a way that isn’t scripted. If it was, he wouldn’t be able to seamlessly converse with his audience like a natural. This awesome mix of creative professionalism and ease is the mark of a seasoned professional of the music industry, which makes the “rock” in ROCKSTAR more about a foundational groundedness than a prima donna irascible egostistical twat. The effect of the Montreal show at ARTV made you feel privy to a superstar who carried on like he was a guest in your living room.

Photo by Danniel Oickle
Photo by Danniel Oickle

If you think a musician needs to be fucked up to create, it would appear Joseph Arthur is a shining example that it is not the case anymore. In song, he mines the trash we collect in soul and spirit that sometimes sees relief only through pipes and pints. But carrying that stink into a future that can only crumble under the weight of a rockstar lifestyle seems to be something Arthur has circumnavigated and responsibly detours.

Life in song portrayed as chaos and beauty and trying to stay together on a razorblade, Joseph Arthur in reality appears to have surrendered to the storm, and reaching for a higher power and salvation from bullshit that plagues. And while no one needs to be lectured about “the right path,” we sure don’t mind his notes from the underground about it. In fact, there’s a holiness in his harmonies where his melodious sermons in song purify, redeem us and simply raise us up in feeling and awareness that with a bit of delusion and prayer, we’ll make it.

“May God’s love be with you, always” he sang in the last song, In the Sun.

This is not the first, nor last, incredibly positive concert review to express how Joseph Arthur penetrates our hearts and souls. But, hopefully it represents a most personal and powerful recommendation to get out to see Joseph Arthur any chance you get. Feel the moment for yourself. He is a magic man.

He is magic, man.

— Sylvie Hill

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