With his soft, gravelly voice and expressive tremble, singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur gives the impression of a young Stephen Stills practicing a Bowie-like quaver. The voice is Arthur's own, though, pure Ohio sand, soul, and grit, with a hint of theatricality.
In his latest guise, presented at Sellersville Theater on a foggy Thursday night, Arthur was the front man and solo-heavy guitarist of a flower-power trio, with drummer Bill Dobrow (of the Black Crowes and other associations) and famed REM bassist/vocalist Mike Mills.
As a writer, Arthur is part emotive songsmith, part histrionic art-pop purveyor. Since 1997's Big City Secrets, he has refused to stand still, moving through experimental variations on his initial themes. He was part of the calm, semi-superstar trio Fistful of Mercy (with Dhani Harrison and Ben Harper), and he has found success as a painter and a poet (I Miss the Zoo and Other Poetry Selections was just released).
At the Sellersville, Arthur unveiled two new albums, The Ballad of Boogie Christ Act 1 and Act 2, each with its own psychedelic-soul take on a 21st-century Jesus. The intimacy of the Sellersville drove the trio to magically inspired, highly personal performances. Arthur isn't the type to dwell on the oldies: He said he could no sooner recite the Bible than play a fan's request for "Anywhere With You." But an impromptu bluesy "Happy Birthday" for a woman named, I think, "Donnamomma" will forever live in my memory, and probably in hers.
So will Arthur's new songs. As guitarist, he created spare yet elegant arrangements on Christ's blistering, poignant title track, and on autobiographical songs like the grungy "Akron Skies." Dobrow lent a rolling tom-tom pulse to "I Am the Witness," while Arthur and Mills raised their voices to gently soulful heights, reminiscing about the "pleasure and pain" of a life less squandered.
Arthur and this new material took full advantage of Mills' vocal harmonies and pliant bass lines on soft yet trenchant songs such as "Saint of Impossible Causes" and "I Used to Know How to Walk on Water." The sound was so soft that Mills joked he'd never seen a guitarist turn down his amps. That conversational conviviality - plus this trio's smart, emotional rock-outs - made this live show one of 2013's best.