The Magic Band UK & Ireland tour 2011
Continuing this site’s ‘new music’ tradition, ahem, we follow Wanda Jackson, Blurt and Charles Hayward (the youngest of which being the latter at 60) with the Magic Band who contain three members pitched in the sexagenarian age bracket. Clearly being born before 1952 is a requirement for getting a review on this site these days.
The Magic Band.
London Scala. 30nov11.
Dublin Button Factory. 02dec11.
Nottingham Rescue Rooms. 07dec11.
Leeds Irish Centre. 08dec11.
What sells the Magic Band as being something more than merely a Captain Beefheart tribute act is the fact that they contain some genuine ‘originals’, people who recorded and played out Don Van Vliet’s music with the man himself at the helm.
The stories around the recording of their most celebrated LP, Trout Mask Replica, where the band were essentially contained within a house under Van Vliet’s sometimes brutal dictatorship for nine months until the complicated sounds were tightly perfected, are sometimes exaggerated, but not by much. Two of the soldiers that went through those productive, but harrowing, POW-like experiences are represented here in the form of bassist Mark Boston (named ‘Rockette Morton’ by Van Vliet) and drummer John French (aka ‘Drumbo’).
With Van Vliet not only retired from the music business since 1982, but also departing this mortal coil in December of last year, you have a team without their captain, but with French as the most ‘loyal’ Magic Band member (in terms of albums recorded and tours undertaken, and the man often charged with turning Van Vliet’s unorthodox creativity into a readable musical ‘score’), it is appropriate that he should fill those big shoes.
Thankfully, French is an excellent blues singer in his own right, taking his cue from Van Vliet in much the same way as Van Vliet did from Howlin’ Wolf. Whilst he hasn’t got quite the same range, the growl is as hearty as you need to capture the essence of what watching Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band live must have been all about.
I was four years old when Beefheart retired and as such relish any opportunity to witness what is as close to the real thing as you could get. Okay so previous ‘Magic Band’ tours have seen a full complement of former colleagues in the Beefheart line-ups (Gary Lucas and Robert Williams no longer being involved), and are now augmented by drummer Craig Bunch and guitarist Erik Klerks, the latter of which was just one when the last Beefheart album was released, but with French, Boston and Denny ‘Feelers Rebo’ Whalley still in place, ‘experienced’ hands still remain on the tiller.
John French reported two years ago that there would be no further Magic Band tours as it was just too complicated to generate sufficient interest from promoters. However, a calling to play at another All Tomorrow’s Parties event has meant a return to touring action. However, with the prospect that the curtain may come down again at any point, I was determined to make the most of this seven date tour, arranging to attend four.
One thing you notice when witnessing the same set four times in eight days is that the highlights will not always be the same. In London, When It Blows It Stacks was of most significance as it marked the point the band settled into their rhythm. Prior to that, for the first twenty minutes, they looked very much like a band who hadn’t played on stage together for a good couple of years, and were undergoing some first night nerves. After that hurdle was overcome however, we were treated to nigh on a further two hours of Beefheart music played beautifully.
The roar after Big Eyed Beans From Venus closed the set, well after curfew, was testament to the excitement with which this return to the stage was being met. Naughty boys that they are though, as French attempted to meet the demands for an encore with an un-set-listed version of the a capella piece Orange Claw Hammer, the plug was pulled on the amplification. Does what is essentially a spoken word piece actually count as breaking the terms of the live music license?
It was over to Ireland for the second date of the tour, and here Clear Spot was raising its head above the parapet, whilst it was also becoming clear that while the start of the set was now coming out with requisite confidence, Steal Softly Through Snow might not be the most effective set opener, even if it does set up some of the more intricate playing that we can come to expect later on.
Whilst tunes like Click Clack are in the set for fans of the bluesier end of the material (French: “they say you’re not a blues band unless you got a train song”), there is also Hair Pie and Smithsonian Institute Blues for those keener on the jagged psychedelia side. Midway through the set, during a winding coda to Kandy Korn, French takes over the drum-stool for an instrumental set. Rather than being half an hour for the musos, for me this is one of the most exciting parts. After all, if you’ve paid, partly, to see ‘Drumbo’, Captain Beefheart’s ‘senior’ drummer, you want to see him, well, drum. In the midst of this is a solo which might be viewed as indulgent but actually fits perfectly between On Tomorrow and Alice In Blunderland. French’s drum stool slot ends with My Human Gets Me Blues which in combination with the subsequent Suction Prints would probably be my favourite part of the set, taken over all four nights. Two pieces which fly off in odd directions and go atonal to a certain degree and yet make the feet twitch. Who says you can’t dance to Beefheart? This is the finest dance music ever made.
In Nottingham, the band added Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightning to the set to pay tribute to Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who had died earlier that week; their anecdotes about meeting him touchingly showing that, at heart, they were as much giddy fanboys as those of us turned out to watch them.
On the final night of the tour, in Leeds, French admitted to pulling on the glottal reserves after a heavy personal workload on stage over the course of the jaunt, but the on stage energy did not lapse. Taking place in a working mens club style venue with Christmas decorations obliterating the ceiling, and festive trees upon the stage, the atmosphere took on an added sense of celebration. Here, Nowadays A Woman’s Gotta Hit A Man took on highlight duties, possibly helped by the fact that more ladies were evidence in the audience, and indeed down the front in Drumbo’s eyeline, than at any other show.
Further quality moments were ones we’ve come to expect from a Magic Band set: Floppy Boot Stomp heaving into view like a Fiat Punto through a front room window; Circumstances taking cheeky liberties with two false endings but also taking no prisoners with the force of the inhale/exhale harmonica; Electricity which isn’t hurried, allowed to ebb and pulse tantrically, elongated as though it is suddenly a new age club anthem, and finally Big Eyed Beans From Venus where Denny Whalley’s lunar note floats with a similar sense of forthcoming ‘release’.
So, was it worth seeing them so often in the space of just over a week? Without doubt, as Beefheartian sounds are always ones which reward repeated listening, and the Magic Band perform that material with a real gusto, making it come alive in a way that records can only suggest.