Friday, November 10, 2017

"The World of Captain Beefheart (featuring Nona Hendryx and Gary Lucas)"

A few weeks ago, I was stoked to stream a hot set by the reunited members of Ornette Coleman's Prime Time Band (augmented by David Murray, Wallace Roney, Badal Roy, and Marc Ribot) from an unlikely venue: San Francisco's eclectic Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. The band after Prime Time was Cheap Trick. Go fig. But it made me unreasonably happy, not just because they played well, but because such occurrences are a sign that Ornette's music continues to be performed and heard by new audiences after its creator's passing.

More recently, I got a similar kick when I stumbled across a Dangerous Minds piece (which may be gone by the time you read this) announcing the release on Knitting Factory of a set of Captain Beefheart covers by Don Van Vliet's former manager and accompanist Gary Lucas and an unlikely collaborator: Nona Hendryx, best known from her time with salacious R&B divas Labelle. Those of A Certain Age will recall Labelle from their disco hit "Lady Marmalade." I also have the memory of seeing them get booed off the stage when they opened for the Who at Forest Hills in '71, imprinting on my 14-year-old mind the idea that rock fans can be racist goons. (The 'orrible 'oo themselves loved their opening act, having first shared a stage with them at Murray the K's '67 Easter show, when they were still known as Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles.)

Hendryx herself has bulletproof Lower Manhattan underground cred, having gone on to perform with Talking Heads, her own New Wave outfit Zero Cool, Bill Laswell's Material, and the Black Rock Coalition. She'd previously sung Don's songs at NYC's Bowery Poetry Club for a 2011 Beefheart tribute organized by Jesse Krakow (ex-Doctor Nerve, who played with Lucas in the Van Vliet repertory unit Fast 'N' Bulbous and is the bassist and co-producer on the record under consideration here), and at an Amsterdam Paradiso event that featured a 65-piece orchestra playing Beefheart tunes. Lucas has also performed in Magic Band reunion groups that included original Beefheart drummer John French. With French having announced his retirement following a series of shows this year (including one in Austin where he was backed by Churchwood), Lucas is the last Magic Band veteran still playing this music. He knows the material well enough to synthesize two and even three guitar parts, when necessary.

The World of Captain Beefheart documents Hendryx's Amsterdam set, backed by a stripped-down four-piece (guitar, bass, drums, keyboards) in place of the orchestra. The selection of tunes reminds us that Beefheart music wasn't all one thing. Besides the jagged dissonance that made Don's reputation on monumental albums like Trout Mask Replica, Lick My Decals Off Baby, and Doc At the Radar Station, there was Safe As Milk's garage psychedelia, The Spotlight Kid's doomy swamp music, and the accessible -- even danceable -- R&B-flavored rock of Clear Spot and Shiny Beast.

Hendryx draws on each of these strains, starting out in Clear Spot territory with a take on "Sun Zoom Spark" that grabs you by the lapels and shakes you with its shuddering syncopation, gliding into the beautiful soul ballad "My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains," showcasing Don's often-overlooked lyricism with a vocal approach that makes the song hers for a minute. Safe As Milk opener "Sure 'Nuff 'N Yes I Do" gets a treatment closer to the Delta than Ry Cooder et al. originally gave it. Keyboardist Jordan Shapiro throws a little barrelhouse piano in among the "Rollin' and Tumblin'"-isms, and Lucas' snaky slide slithers all over. "Sleep with me, and I'll sleep with you," indeed.

"I'm Glad," another song from Safe As Milk, is as close as Don ever came to Smokey Robinson's turf, reminding one that the Magic Band started out as popular locals, playing for car clubs in the high desert. Hendryx and backup vocalists Kiki Hawkins and Keith Fluitt take it all the way uptown. "The Smithsonian Institute Blues" is a sturdy piece of ecology crank-ism from Lick My Decals Off, Baby, released back around the time of the first Earth Day; Hendryx invests it with a repose that might indicate resignation, or that she's seen worse. "Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles" is another Clear Spot item, on which Hendryx's soulful approach manages to reconcile its blues and its lyricism. Lucas' solo recalls Jeff Beck around the time his Stevie Wonder influence started showing.

I think I first heard "Suction Prints" from a tape of the '73 show at NYC's Town Hall that Lucas mentions in the liner notes. After that, I had it on several bootlegs before seeing Don open with it twice with the '75 Magic Band (Walley-Tepper-Feldman-Williams) -- a revelatory experience in which I realized that what I'd previously thought was chaos was actually through-composed, while hearing musos different than the ones on the record playing Trout Mask songs note-for-note. The tune itself, a crashing-and-thumping instrumental that winds its way through several sections, never fails to speed up my heartbeat. I can feel Richard Dorkin's kick drum in my solar plexus. Feels good. And the absence of trombone makes it sound more like what I originally heard than the version on Shiny Beast.

Hendryx and Co. pay a visit to Trout Mask via "Sugar 'N Spikes," a relatively lighthearted bit of wordplay with backing that is alternately playful and majestic, and the insane stop-and-go of "When Big Joan Sets Up" -- which today sounds like an early commentary on body shaming; Don was ahead of his songwriting contemporaries in more ways than one. Hendryx's vocalismo only comes up short when she's imitating Don's constricted-larynx falsetto. She's back on familiar turf with the Stax-ish romp "Too Much Time" from Clear Spot, on which she sounds more at home than the song's author. Oh, to have heard Sharon Jones sing this!

To these feedback-scorched ears, they might have saved the best for last. The Spotlight Kid's "When It Blows Its Stacks" -- which Krakow previously covered with Doctor Nerve -- juxtaposes doom-blues with a delicate melodic interlude, and Lucas' solo summons the shade of Winged Eel Fingerling. They close the program with the carnivalesque and slightly menacing "Tropical Hot Dog Night," which had me scratching my head when I first heard it on Shiny Beast but now just might be my favorite Beefheart tune of all. While this is the kind of project that makes old fans dig out their albums, it also works on its own terms. This band sounds like it'd be a blast to hear live.


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