My entry point into the alternate and wilfully singular universe once inhabited by Captain Beefheart was witnessing him and his post-Magic band playing a heavy space swamp blues take of Upon The My-O-My on The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1974. A suitably mainstream entry point, I think you'd agree, it left me entirely unprepared for the more cacophonous records in his discography. Emboldened by hearing strange blasts of alien blues on John Peel's shows, and later when the punk revolution saw his name mentioned occasionally, I bought the albums from the Virgin years, and eventually Trout Mask Replica.
Although I certainly have a taste for the more avant end of the rock spectrum, or "chimps playing kazoos" as my mate would have it, I will freely admit that I have never got on with that most divisive of records, and to this day I struggle to understand it. Luckily I didn't let it put me off, and I've grown to love most of the back catalogue, apart from the dreadfully limp Unconditionally Guaranteed, ironically enough! So, when I saw this gig come through on my Farcebook newsfeed it was a must see.
The fourth of six UK dates sees the Magic Band appearing in the intimate surroundings of The Musician, Leicester, on a damp and cold December night. A capacity crowd of probably around 150 mostly male, mostly middle-aged blokes assembled to frug to the good Captain's strange tunes. Leicester, even jokingly referred to by us almost locals as "Lie-cester" gets the same treatment from John “Drumbo” French who also questions in a bemused fashion why a food compliment is spelled "Wor-ces-ter-shire Sauce", but pronounced "Wusster". Well, if anyone should be used to expecting the unobvious, surely it's a member of this particular musical grouping, methinks!
Anyone who has read of Beefheart's dreadful treatment of his band during the prolonged rehearsals/imprisonment/torture (delete as your conscience dictates) for Trout Mask Replica will find it quite remarkable that John French and Mark “Rockette Morton” Boston ever wanted to hear a Beefheart tune again, let alone play the stuff live. But play it they do, and then some, and with a palpable sense of enjoyment, too. Denny “Feelers Rebo” Walley joined the band later and only stayed for a couple of years, probably getting out while he still could, and he completed the trio of original members of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band.
As soon as Drumbo opens his mouth to declaim My Human Gets Me Blues it is as if the Captain was among us. His voice, right down to the nuances of the snarls, the whoops and hollers, IS the Captain. It is an uncanny resemblance.
While Drumbo is unquestionably the leader, the ensemble playing is as tight as a nut, especially so on the seemingly completely illogical moves some of these tunes make. When let loose, lead guitarist Eric Klerks shows himself to be a fine player, as are they all, weaving in and out of the complex mathematical structure of the more avant songs in the setlist. Playing this anti-music with a nonchalance of a bar band playing Johnny B Goode for the 7015th time, the band make it look easy when it patently is not. Credit must be given to drummer Andrew Nive, who somehow manages to keep it all from flying apart.
On a more conventionally structured tune like Hot Head the band emit a powerful stomp, possibly in a floppy boot. When not declaiming or conducting the group, arms pulling forth crescendos and endings from the band, Drumbo is honking away on the sax in a free jazz stylee with more than a touch of the Ornette Colemans. The man also blows a mean harp, boy.
After the first set the band mixed with the audience near the merch stall, and they were all very approachable, Mark Boston being the most genial, posing for photos with fans and autographing CDs, like everyone's favourite uncle. It was an eye-opener seeing Drumbo, a few minutes ago the larger than life shamanic channeller of the good Captain, transform into the straight ahead John French as soon as he stepped away from the magic dust on the stage.
The second set commences with Drumbo doing what he started out doing all those years ago, with a fine charge or three round the drum kit serving as an introduction to On Tomorrow from Spotlight Kid. One of the highlights was the nearest thing in the set to a ballad, in spirit if not in sound, a sublime version of Steal Softly Through Snow, which is an example of Beefheart at his most poetic.
You can't play dem blooze without talking about a train, and Click Clack more than fulfills that particular obligation, chooglin' along at an insistent pace. All too soon the set is over, ending with a fine rendition of the classic declamatory lurch that is Big Eyed Beans From Venus.
The encore delivers a blistering take of Electricity, Drumbo stretching the syllables to almost snapping point in that remarkable Beefheartian drawl. Bonkers and brilliant. Sure 'Nuff 'N Yes I Do saw Drumbo struggling with and eventually being defeated by the microphone set up for the mouth harp, while the band played manfully on. It was the only technical mishap of the evening, but it did nothing to spoil what was a thoroughly enjoyable night.
Finally...just why is Bat Chain Puller so darned expensive?
The Magic Band are:
Denny “Feelers Rebo” Walley - guitar, slide guitar
Mark “Rockette Morton” Boston - bass guitar
John “Drumbo” French - uncanny vocals, saxophone, harmonica, drums, guitar
Eric Klerks - lead guitar
Andrew Nive - drums
Setlist: (approximate - a combination of memory and older setlists. Feel free to put me right!)
My Human Gets Me Blues TMR
Low Yo Yo Stuff cs
Diddy Wah Diddy
Hair Pie (Bass Solo)
Golden Birdies cs
When It Blows Its Stacks TSK
Hot Head DATRS
Doctor Dark LMDOB
On Tomorrow SP
(Opened with John French drum solo)
Alice in Blunderland TSK
Suction Prints SB(BCP)
Hair Pie Bake I TMR
Steal Softly Through Snow TMR
Owed T'Alex SB(BCP)
Click Clack TSK
Floppy Boot Stomp SB(BCP)
Moonlight on Vermont TMR
Big Eyed Beans From Venus CS
Sure 'Nuff 'N Yes I Do SAM
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