Drumbo fury

The Magic Band might be down to a lone original member now, but John French is still the crucial link to Captain Beefheart, says Martin Longley.

The Magic Band
The Robin
November 16th

The Magic Band come incredibly close to the authentic Captain Beefheart experience, now that he’s departed, and before that, when he’d retired from making music. Their vital member is John ‘Drumbo’ French, the band’s original drummer from the initial late-1960s period (rejoining towards the end of Don Van Vliet’s musical phase, in the late 1970s).

Nowadays, Drumbo directly tackles the Beefheart role, managing a very close vocal impersonation, as well as blowing a mean harmonica and an abstract soprano saxophone. He also revisits the old drumkit at the start of the outfit’s second set, demonstrating a completely unique percussive style. The latest sticksman, young Andrew Niven, plays well throughout the set’s bulk, but can’t possibly match Drumbo for odd-rhythm primacy.

This tour marks a new stage in the Magic Band evolution, as a recent heart bypass operation has forced original bassman Rockette Morton to stay at home (well, he missed Beefheart’s first two albums, but was onboard for Trout Mask Replica onwards). With typical Magic Band quirkiness, Morton’s replacement is Brian Havey, who apes the basslines on his keyboard. Havey’s presence also allows mimicry of marimba and trombone parts that are so important to some of Beefheart’s later songs.

Regular guitarist Eric Klerks also provides occasional bass runs, freeing up Havey during those patches. Old hand axeman Denny Walley also departed recently, and has been replaced by Max Kutner, to maintain the bottleneck jousting tradition.

As a result, this Bilston show found the Magic Band even further removed from their wellspring, but as long as Drumbo remains such a key, dominant presence, their followers need not be concerned overmuch. Indeed, a taste for improvisation and change has been satisfied, notably when Klerks and Kutner duelled during When It Blows Its Stacks, taking their guitars into an almost math rock zone, updating the vocabulary with trembling howls and acidicly angular riffs.

As ever, Trout Mask Replica and Clear Spot provide many of the song highlights, with Moonlight On Vermont and Low Yo-Yo Stuff ripping up the joint. However, there’s a strong representation from the early, bluesier albums, as well as from the Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) sessions. This meant that we headbanged (in a maxi-complicated manner) to Tropical Hot Dog Night and Suction Prints, the latter showcasing the rest of the combo, while Drumbo took a break, proving how impressive they are even without his compulsive frontal presence.

The encore featured a surprise choice in the early Glider, surely one of Beefheart’s least-known songs, followed by Big Eyed Beans From Venus, which always seems somehow overrated in the canon, the populist choice. It remains a powerful ditty, though, not least due to the attacking drum build-ups, handled well by Niven.

It’s an oddly classical music experience, akin to witnessing similar performances by Frank Zappa interpreters. The music is infused with the spirit of spontaneity, but it’s the spontaneity of decades past, and we might complain if too many changes were made. The pieces are invariably so involved with dynamic detail that a typical Beefheart acolyte is desiring an experience that trips those switches. Electricity would be a fine example. We were sated all night long, with a substantial two-set epic. Yes, Beefheart’s music glories up at the creamier tip of the last hundred-year output.