Joseph Arthur has had a rough year. After releasing three critically acclaimed albums on Peter Gabriel’s Real World, he discovered the label wouldn’t be around for a fourth. As if one big loss weren’t enough, Arthur gave up his apartment in New York City bouncing between Los Angeles and New Orleans before finally settling in the Big Easy to work with producers and musicians on what would become Our Shadows Will Remain, due out Oct. 12 on Vector Recordings.
While Arthur’s label dispute wasn’t as dramatic or publicized as the controversy surrounding Wilco two years ago, his new release could be a big breakthrough for him the way Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was for Jeff Tweedy and company. So it’s fitting that Arthur should support Wilco on five of its Southeast tour dates before continuing on his own solo tour of the Western U.S.
It’s the night of Sept. 23, at too-good-to-be-true venue the historic Fox Theatre in Midtown Atlanta, and Arthur makes his way onstage, opening with the gentle, acoustic “Echo Park.” Not one for between-song banter, he moves subtly into the dark, edgy “Devil’s Broom” before merging into his trademark loops and vocal layering on the haunting “Leave Us Alone,” about famed Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis. Arthur is joined onstage by violinist Joan Wasser and Wilco keyboardist Pat Sansone who add near-perfect embellishments to the nine-song set.
Five gems from Our Shadows Will Remain grace the set, as well as his website only single “All of Our Hands,” the falsetto infused “Innocent World” (from 2002’s brilliant Redemption’s Son), and the Come to Where I’m From beauty, “In the Sun.” I’ve seen Arthur close to 10 times now and he’s never ended a show without “Speed of Light,” his love song to New Orleans. In some ways, his new release is full of New Orleans, too, where Arthur avoided the city’s decadence, pouring it instead into his songwriting.
Whether as a 45-minute opening act or a two-hour solo show, a Joseph Arthur performance is not to be missed. Even as a one (or three) man band, he’s able to match the rich production quality and sound prevalent on his albums. He blows you away with his superb songs and voice, floating from chest-rumbling lows to flawless, ethereal highs, or nonchalantly crooning apocalyptic truths—“…if you hate your life/just remember there used to be a time/when we could not feel a thing.”
Arthur lived in Atlanta in the early ’90s, and as he modestly exits the stage, I think about a humid, late-summer evening when as a struggling 20-something musician he might’ve breezed down Peachtree Street past the Fox Theatre, his mind far from this night, ten years later, winning over a full house, opening for Wilco.