The Beefheartian Magic Band are soon appearing at the Lunar Festival, but Martin Longley thrilled to their inspired re-creations in Leamington last Thursday…
The Magic Band
Leamington Spa struggled to draw in a size of crowd deserved by such a stellar crew as The Magic Band, but as the first of two sets progressed, the audience steadily expanded. It was probable that folks were unclear over the start-time, perhaps not realising that these esteemed Captain Beefheart veterans would be playing an extended show, with intermission.
This crew plays so regularly that they’ve turned the re-creation of the Beefheart oeuvre into a fine art of precision. The music’s intricacies are in place, but the players are free to sound unhinged and spontaneous, secure in the knowledge that they usually know where they’re going to land. Two of the band members were right there in the early days: sticksman Drumbo and bassist Rockette Morton, commonly known as John French and Mark Boston. Although drumming in days of yore, French eventually took on the absent/retired Don Van Vliet’s vocal role, doing an excellent job of capturing the Captain’s flighty blues-encrusted yowl. He also plays harmonica, saxophone and occasional guitar, and makes for a compulsively watchable frontman, continually pacing the stage and dramatically emphasising the vocals with expressive gesticulations. His energy, coupled with the compulsory commitment of the instrumentalists, created a resonant electricity that was a constant presence throughout the evening, magnifying as the sets built towards their heights. French frequently took to the drums for the instrumentals, but when he was singing, newer recruit Andrew Niven took his place. The guitarists were Eric Klerks and Denny Walley, the latter mostly known as a Frank Zappa sideman, playing on the Bongo Fury live album that FZ made with Beefheart in 1975, subsequently joining Van Vliet for the Bat Chain Puller sessions.
Yes, this combo was assisted monumentally by the repertoire, and its charged familiarity, but they delivered interpretations that would have been completely suited to the imagined presence of the Captain himself. They rocked: intricately, earthily, scorchingly, cerebrally, frighteningly, and perhaps surprisingly funkily. The set-list was impeccable, with the Walley/Klerks twinned slide guitars spotlit gloriously on Circumstances, Sun Zoom Spark, Clear Spot and Nowadays A Woman’s Gotta Hit A Man. Yes, the 1972 Clear Spot album was probably the biggest source for songs on this evening. A more directly bluesy grind drove early numbers such as Mirror Man and Electricity. Most of the instrumentals were lifted from Trout Mask Replica, prompting a nervy sort of headbanging, fast and bulbous, but Suction Prints was a particular riff-complexity stand-out, arriving from nearly a decade later, in the late 1970s. Drumbo picked up the sticks for an instrumental reading of Ella Guru, and Pachuco Cadaver was another tense classic. He made up a guitar trio for Hothead, one of Beefheart’s best ‘later period’ songs.
We have to be extremely grateful to this band for continuing to offer the essential Beefheart repertoire at a level that the man himself would have appreciated, even if he might have said that he didn’t..! Rock’n’roll has still not reached this level of Van Vliet advancement, over four decades down the line.
The Magic Band will be playing at The Lunar Festival, Tanworth-In-Arden, on Sunday 8th June…