Album Review: Arthur Lee / Love — Coming Through to You: The Live Recordings (1970-2004)

lee_love_coming_throughWith the (both critically and commercially) belated realization by the music world-at-large that Love‘s 1967 album Forever Changes is a classic came an unfortunate misconception. That was the idea that once the original lineup of Love broke up, Arthur Lee and/or his subsequent Love didn’t produce anything of lasting value.

It’s true on one hand that for those who loved the light-classical flourishes of Forever Changes, the music that followed was largely – but not completely – devoid of many qualities that made it special. Lee put together a harder-rocking band that had little interest in that kind of music. And to be fair, and within the context of that era, why should they have? Forever Changes didn’t sell very well, and Love’s reputation didn’t spread far and wide as did Elektra labelmates The Doors, for example.

As the recent reissue of Love’s (more or less) last album, Reel to Real demonstrated, Arthur Lee still had quite a few good musical, lyrical, and arrangement ideas in him. And in that sense, Reel to Real shouldn’t be considered a brief comeback of sorts; he had been producing quality material all along.

True, Love/Lee was erratic. But the music was there, even if few heard it at the time. Lee’s early reluctance to tour outside greater Los Angeles certainly helped doom his chances at wide acceptance. But Love did have fans beyond the reaches of L.A.

They were revered in England, as it happens. The UK sensibility where music is concerned has always been a bit different than the United States mindset. Note that while the Beach BoysPet Sounds – another album now rightly considered at the apogee of sixties’ music – was a commercial disappointment at home, it sold quite well in England, where it was immediately recognized for what it was.

A new box set of recordings from the Rock Beat label seeks to put the “lost” period of Love (basically, everything after Forever Changes – into its proper context. The subtitle of each of the four discs sets out the framework of Coming Through to You: The Live Recordings (1970-2004). “The 1970,” “The 1990s,” “The 2000s,” and “A Fan’s View.” (Note that there’s no disc covering the 1980s, a period during which Lee was largely inactive; he also spent 1996-2001 behind bars [some charges were later reversed.])

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easier to discern a musical connection between the post-Forever Changes material and Love’s earlier albums, Love and Da Capo (both 1966). The harder-rocking, more riff-oriented material showcased on “The 1970s” has plenty in common with earlier tracks like “7 and 7 Is” and Love’s incendiary reading of Burt Bacharach‘s “My Little Red Book” (a live version of the latter is a highlight of the first disc).

The players in the 1970 Love lineup (all tracks on the first disc actually date from live performances in 1970 in the USA and Europe) were an accomplished lot: a listen to Frank Fayed‘s bass lines on “”Nothing” erases all doubt. And Lee showcases the various styles to which he can put his voice on the tunes here. “Bummer in the Summer” – one of the few Forever Changes era tunes you’ll find on Coming Through to You – is nearly a sort of proto-Aerosmith-meets-Jimi Hendrix. Gary Rowles and Lee tear it up on guitar, and drummer George Suranovich pummels the skins with precision and power.

By the 1990s (the period covered on the second disc) Lee had begun – on some level – to come to terms with his demons and his reputation. Most of the recordings on the second disc are acoustic, solo readings, though seven tunes form a Northampton, Massachusetts show with full band are included (a bootleg of the complete Northampton set has long circulated – cough, cough – among collectors). A solo version of “Alone Again Or” – a rare track penned not by Lee, but by guitarist Bryan MacLean – demonstrates Lee’s subtle and assured work on guitar. Maybe he’s kidding, and maybe not, when mid-song, he says, “I just learned how to do this; I did!” The Cheetahs (Lee’s backing band for Northampton, though the bootleg credits Love) are absolutely on fire for a note-perfect reading of “A House is Not a Motel.” And the nuanced air of Forever Changes is faithfully recreated – complete with flute accompaniment – on “She Comes in Colors.”

The last three tracks on the second disc feature Mike Randle and Rusty Squeezebox (the core of Baby Lemonade) and two other players ably backing Lee for a 1996 show. They’d have to wait many years before playing with Lee again after this.

Out of prison and enjoying the long-overdue recognition for his music, Lee regrouped the Baby Lemonade guys. That period is documented on the third disc, drawing from excellent recordings in the UK and Norway from 2002-2004. The full band version of “Alone Again Or” – which Lee introduced by crediting the departed MacLean – is a hint of things to come: a nearly just-like-the-record reading of the Forever Changes classic, with the breathtaking string and brass parts included. “Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale” features more of those Tijuana-Brass-meets-hard-rock stylings, in all their glory. When the band tears into “The Daily Planet,” the joy that Lee and band are experiencing is palpable. The deeply psychedelic workout of “Stephanie Knows Who” is in some ways superior to the studio version.

The fourth disc of Coming Through to You, titled “A Fan’s View,’ is something of an odds-and-sods collection, drawing from various recordings (of varying and generally dodgy sonic quality) made between the 1970s and 2004. While they’re of undeniable historic interest (at least to Love/Lee fans), they’re perhaps not of interest to casual listeners. A reading of Jimi Hendrix’ “Little Wing” finds Arthur Lee backed by three members of The Knack.

It’s a bit unnerving to hear the applause of three, maybe four audience members when Lee introduces “The Everlasting First,” a tune he wrote with Hendrix. The performances on this disc are of a general high quality, but the amateur recordings (cleaned up as they may be) don’t invite repeated listening.

The Doors’ Robby Krieger contributes a nice liner note essay (as does Mike Randle), and the booklet includes good (if nearly impossible to read) detail on the personnel involved in each performance. The pop-psych cover art makes Lee’s connection to the era – and specifically to Hendrix – plain.

If you’ve got Forever Changes and the latter-year live recordings of it (and perhaps the Love Story compilation), you should make Coming Through to You: The Live Recordings (1970-2004) your next stop.