THE MAGIC BAND
Concorde 2, Brighton, Fri 1st March
As I wrote in my little obituary to him a couple of years ago, I would find it hard to overstate how much I am a fan of Captain Beefheart and his deranged blend of blues, free jazz and psychedelia. As Tom Waits said "Once you've heard [him],it's hard to wash him out of your clothes. It stains, like coffee or blood."
But when the Magic Band reformed without their Captain a decade back (after Beefheart had abandoned music), some fans were skeptical. What's the point, they asked, the backing band without the star turn? Which is to misconceive the whole thing...
Because they were associated people assume Beefheart and Zappa worked in similar ways. And true, both treated their musicians like the hired help. But Zappa treated the Mothers like a modern employer – demanding greater and greater efforts from them, then finally replacing them with machines. Beefheart was more feudal, like a King imagining his servants to be dependent on him when it was all the other way around.
Ironically even here a poster's on sale of the defining Beefheart image, the 'fish-face' front cover of 'Trout Mask Replica.' Whereas my favourite photo has always been the back cover of that album – which features the whole band (both below).
A somewhat creative interpreter of the truth Beefheart told a litany of lies around this over the years, including the entirely bogus claim that he taught various band members to play from scratch. Yet he wasn't band leader or composer so much as a guru of sound – conjuring up impossible poetic notions, then expecting those around him to come up with the tiresome business of translating his vision into actual music.
The chief translator of these astral visions into actual recordings was probably the then-drummer John French (aka Drumbo), now stepping up to be the front man. In short, these guys were not session musicians and have the perfect right to perform the music they did so much to create. (Disclaimer: while alongside Drumbo old hands Rockette Morton and Feelers Rebo are on board, the line-up's buttressed by newbies Eric Klerks and Craig Bunch.)
Of course, there's limitations. However good a singer and engaging a stage presence Drumbo is, he can't really match the charismatic derangement of the Captain. And the Captain's absence does lead to indiscipline in the ranks. Without him, these master players can concentrate on being musicians over and above playing the music. Alas, why is it that “would you like to hear a bass solo?” always turns out to be a rhetorical question. (Me, I don't even like guitar solos!) On top of which, mindful of a venue curfew but keen to provide a meet-and-greet, they split their set in half. This works against momentum and means things don't really get going until towards the end.
But when it works, it truly is magic. Sensibly the set circles the more difficult peaks of their repertoire such as 'Trout Mask', offering audiences a soft ascent and concentrating more on later albums such as 'Spotlight Kid' and 'Clear Spot.' (Though with surprisingly few tracks from the early years, not even 'Electricity'.) When two of my favourite tracks, 'Owed t'Alex' and 'Moonlight in Vermont' were played near-back-to-back, I truly thought my little heart might burst for joy.
That same day, the Guardian ran an interview with Steve Reich – commenting how his compositions were innovative and original without being elitist and citing how he'd recently wowed a rowdy rock festival audience in London. The Magic Band's music isn't much like Reich's - but in that way maybe it is. Simultaneously free and beat-driven, it's the left-field music you can dance to.
And what could be better than that?
From Preston about a year ago, tearing through 'Circumstances'. (Looks like pretty much that whole gig is YouTubed, for those who'd like to check it out.)
The Corn Exchange, Brighton, 19th Feb
One of the axioms of Lucid Frenzy is that art breeds best on the borderlands. It works like cooking. Rustling up a meal, you don't go searching for the perfect carrot or ideal onion. You mix the ingredients, stir things up to get a good taste going.
So Calexico are onto a good thing by naming themselves after a Californian town on the Mexican border. They blend country and Americana with Tex Mex, with several numbers sporting mariachi horns and even a cover of Love's 'Alone Again Or' thrown in. (Okay, Tex Mex doesn't hail from California. The band's actually from Arizona. These are musical borders they're based in, okay?) Band members swap instruments with such impunity you wonder if it's all some sort of pass-the-parcel game, where you play whatever you're passed once the music starts.
It all ticks so many boxes, yet I find myself wanting to like it all slightly more than I do. There are points which strike you straight between the eyes. But there's other points which don't. There's points where things roll amicably along and while you like it enough you feel it's within them to make you love it. You can't really predict when those moments will strike next, with several tracks running on neutral then suddenly breaking into the most enthralling coda. The result is a set which kept grabbing at your attention without ever quite keeping hold of it. It's a band you only really need to hear the best of.
The band do seem to excel in design and packaging, check out their website to see what I mean.
Afraid this clip does break off before the end of the track...
Brighton Dome, 22nd Feb
Four Eyed Gav went to see folk legend Richard Thompson again. Four Eyed Gav loved Richard Thompson just as much as any other time he's been to see Richard Thompson. But Four Eyed Gav felt there wasn't really much extra for him to say after the last time. So please just watch the clip instead.