There's something pleasingly demonic about Arto Lindsay's guitar. The bright red electric instrument looks like a child's toy from the bottom of a cornflake packet, only miraculously blown up to full size. Lindsay can't play it properly - indeed, he claims proudly never to have learned a single chord - so in his hands the guitar really does become an axe, and he uses it to chop down great feedback-encrusted oaks of pure noise. As he ravages at the strings, one after another breaks. And when someone in the audience laughs, Lindsay points out that the guitar is a 12-string. "Brain cells", he says, tapping his head.
In lieu of music, Lindsay uses the guitar to punctuate the beat, slashing out staccato slabs of noise to act as commas and full stops, and occasionally taking brief, expressionist solos where he falls to one knee as if losing a wrestling match with his instrument. It's such a cathartic sight that you begin to covet an expressionist guitar of your own, so you can come back home from work and run round the room making unmusical noises. But if Lindsay's playing is harsh and abrasive - and it is - the rest of his band's music is almost impossibly subtle, even tender. The guitar is just the chainsaw on top.
Years ago, Lindsay was the king of post-punk noise. His band DNA were at the sharp end of New York's new wave. Later, with the Ambitious Lovers, he began to integrate the noise into a semblance of funk. Then, he took advantage of his unusual background - as the child of American missionaries, Lindsay grew up in Brazil and learned to speak fluent Portuguese - and created a new kind of deconstructed bossa nova. His four albums for the Rykodisc label in the 1990s mixed dreamy Brazilian pop with hip-hop and nameless weirdness, with help from classy colleagues like Brian Eno, Ryuchi Sakamoto and Laurie Anderson. But the noise always threatened to break through, even in the quietest moments. On Thursday night at the Jazz CafÃ©, it resurfaced.
Surprisingly, for someone whose Contemporary Music Network tour of last summer sold out, the venue wasn't quite full. Like a would-be conspirator attending a meeting, you thought, "Are we really that few?" As the band took the stage there was a familiar air of inattention; you could even hear someone on his mobile discussing that night's Arsenal match. Then, slowly, the music began to exert its power. Over a long set of nearly two hours it just got better and better until, by the end, even the bar staff seemed converted to the Lindsay cause.
Lindsay's band is a killer, and it conveniently covers almost every possible stylistic base. On non-noise guitar, Vinicius Cantuaria strokes out bossa nova rhythms, while Takuya Nakamura produces Beatles-type string sounds and strange electronic washes from his synthesisers, while sometimes using a free arm to play the trumpet. The electric bassist, Melvin Gibbs, is such a legend that he even has his own celebrity stalker, a man in a hat who followed him round the country for the last tour. As Gibbs comes on stage, the stalker announces his presence by shouting "Melvin!" at the top of his voice and Gibbs looks mightily embarrassed. On drums, the enigmatically named Skoota pounds his kit with appropriate energy and violence.
With his stick-thin figure, high-domed forehead, tortoiseshell glasses and air of effortless control, Lindsay looks incongruously like an Ivy League philosophy professor about to engage us in some recondite discussion. "It's so nice to have an audience who can be rude to us in our own language," he says for starters. (This is the last leg of a European tour). Then he scratches at his guitar to unleash the first squalling burst of feedback. One of the last songs features the line, "I'm alive and I know that I will die". Then, "thanks Jean Paul", he says in an aside, before rifling off another assault on the strings; or those that are left, anyway.
'Prize', Arto Lindsay's latest album, is released on RykodiscReuse content