On 15 October last year, I'm in Paris chatting to Joseph Arthur about music. When I mention my addiction to The Velvet Underground and Nico, he wows me with stories of his friendship with Lou Reed. So 12 days later, when I hear the news of Lou's passing, my first thought is of Joe. As sad as the news was for me and the countless fans who have been moved or inspired by Lou's work, for Joe it was the tragic loss of a beloved friend. His immediate response was a eulogy published in American Songwriter, so honest about past failures and regrets yet still so full of joyful moments that it brought me to tears.
I wasn't the only one moved by the eulogy. After reading it, Vanguard Records A&R man Bill Bentley invited Joe to record an album paying tribute to Lou. Simply titled Lou, the album consists of beautiful reimaginings of 12 songs from throughout Lou's career, some Velvets, some solo, from huge hits like 'Walk on the Wild Side' to more esoteric choices like 'Sword of Damocles'.
My first taste of Lou was over the Christmas holidays. Joe had just posted 'Coney Island Baby' on Soundcloud and I sat with my dad at the dining table listening to it on repeat. At that time we didn't even know there was an album in the pipeline; recording this stripped down version of his favourite Lou Reed song was just part of Joe's mourning process.
Then on 28 Feb, Rolling Stone Magazine shared Joe's stunning solo acoustic version of 'Walk on the Wild Side' and the news that a whole album would follow on May 13. At the time, and in many subsequent interviews, Joe expressed concern that people would see the album as him exploiting Lou's death, but for him, making music was the only way to honour the memory of his friend. He needn't have worried: the result is something Lou would certainly have been proud of. It showcases Lou's prodigious song-writing talent while Joe's inimitable musical style makes even the most famous tracks sound new and different.
To mark the release of Lou, Joe finally returned to London on 29 May to play Dingwalls in Camden, with Bill Dobrow on drums once again, and this time with Mike Mills of REM fame on bass. As special as it was to see Boogie Christ in a Hampstead church back in October, I was very happy to see Joe selling out a bigger - and much rockier - venue. Despite a 9-hour journey from Utrecht that morning and four straight days of performing and travelling, as usual Joe didn't let his energy falter for a second.
While Joe soon diverted from the giant painted set-list or "map of possibilities" that he brought on stage with him, it nonetheless gives a good picture of the range we were treated to over the two hour concert: haunting renditions of Lou tracks, the full range of Ballad of Boogie Christ (including a 10-minute 'Black Flowers' freak-out culminating in a strobe lit guitar battle between Joe and Mike), and a few requests from the crowd for fan favourites 'A Smile That Explodes', 'Redemption's Son' and 'Black Lexus'. In the midst of all that, Joe made up a little ditty about London in his best Dick Van Dyke accent (perfected during his stay in Streatham Common in the mid 90s, or the "Oasis versus Blur years") and Mike Mills got to do 'Don't Go Back to Rockville', which has become a staple during their time touring together.
Once again, the fans were left overwhelmed by the quality of the show Joe puts on, his guitar playing skills, his lyrical dexterity and his unbounded enthusiasm for performing. While he spent over an hour signing autographs, being photographed and chatting with fans, we all acknowledged what a rare treat such a musician is, and looked forward to welcoming him back to London again soon with even more new material.
Visit josepharthur.com for more information, tour dates and live recordings of gigs.