The Magic Band

Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band have always been a Marmite band, either you love them or loathe them, there is no grey area. The same can be said for their most famous (infamous?) album “Trout Mask Replica”, it’s either viewed as the work of genius or the biggest load of crap ever committed to vinyl. Captain Beefheart divided opinion like no other during his fifteen-year musical career, releasing a slew of albums that dumfounded and delighted in equal measure. In 1982 he retired from music, retreated to a trailer in the Mojave Desert and dedicated his life to painting, before succumbing to complications arising from multiple sclerosis in 2010.

Seven years before his death, his long-suffering drummer, John “Drumbo” French decided the time was right to reform the band and, with much encouragement from the Simpsons creator Matt Groening, he enlisted former Magic Band members Denny “Feelers Reebo” Walley and Gary “Mantis” Lucas on guitars, bassist Mark “Rockette Morton” Boston and drummer Robert Arthur Williams. As Beefheart was never in the running for a comeback, French stepped into the Captains rather large shoes, becoming vocalist/frontman, a decision that was fraught with risk and could have backfired spectacularly. Fortunately, he pulled it off and won over the fans, including longtime Beefheart obsessive John Peel. Over the years the original members gradually dwindled, due to other work commitments or ill health and now here we are fourteen years later with the band undertaking a farewell tour with John French, the only original member left at the helm, steering a group of young musicians through the challenging waters of the Beefheart back catalogue.

I had been really looking forward to this gig as favourable reviews filtered through, but things started to go awry halfway through the tour as a bug worked its way through the band and by Aldershot had claimed the main man, “Drumbo”. He battled on until Sunday, but had to finally admit defeat and pulled the plug on the show at the Brook after he was taken to Basingstoke hospital with a respiratory infection. You can’t help but feel sorry for artists in this predicament as it is a no-win situation, you can either attempt to soldier on and draw criticism for a below-par performance or, cancel and risk alienating some of your audience. In the case of the Magic Band all was not lost though, as a date three days later was available and the band rescheduled. Ever hopeful I returned on Wednesday, arriving at the venue around 7.40pm excepting to gain entry, only to find the doors firmly shut and a small queue forming outside. Expecting the worse, my fears were allayed when we were informed that their van had broken down and they were still sound checking, it looked like this gig was jinxed, but with help from the NHS and British Rail we were soon back on track.

The Magic Band
The Magic Band 1

Bang on 8.30pm John French on vocals, harmonica, drums and soprano saxophone, Eric Klerks extended range guitar, Max Kutner guitar, Andrew Niven drums and Johnathan Sindelman keyboards appeared in front of us to a cheer from the disappointingly smallish audience and launched into “Floppy Boot Stomp” from the “Shiny Beast” album followed by “Clear Spot’s” “Low YoYo Stuff”. It was clear from the off that this band were well drilled in the intricacies of the Beefheart oeuvre, as ably demonstrated on the tightly arranged “Trout Mask” track “Steal Softly Thru Snow” and “Safe as Milk’s” “Dropout Boogie” and “Abba Zabba”. But, unlike the first manifestation of the reformed band, that stuck rigidly to the original arrangements, they were given a free rein to flex their musical muscles on songs such as “When it Blows it Stack”, a Klerks / Kutner duel to the death, “Alice in Blunderland” a Klerks highlight, “Owed T’ Alex” a showcase for Kutner’s slide and the encore, “Glider” which gave Sindelman a chance to shine. During the show there were some unsuspected high points, such as a delicate interpretation of the “Doc at the Radar Station“ instrumental “A Carrot is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond” courtesy of Sindelman and Kutner, a meandering take on the “Mirror Man” obscurity “25th Century Quaker”, a jarring, clattering “My Human Gets Me Blues” and an ominous “Bat Chain Puller”, a surreal, lyrical nightmare.

The Magic Band
The Magic Band 1

Of course, no Magic Band gig would be complete without “Drumbo” taking to the traps and pounding out a dexterous, polyrhythmic masterclass in controlled chaos, he’s probably one of the most original drummers out there and his style defined Beefheart’s music almost as much as the maestro himself. With John leading the charge the band rushed headlong into an instrumental version of “Strictly Personal’s” “On Tomorrow”, “Trout Masks” polytonal, fractured “Hair Pie” and “The Spotlight Kid’s” “Alice in Blunderland”, all wonderful stuff and worth the price of admission alone. All too soon the evening came to an end with the obvious closer, “Big Eyed Beans From Venus” from “Clear Spot”. With the exclamation, “Mr Maximus Minimus hit that long lunar note and let it float” Kutner hovered his slide over the fret for an unbearably long time before the band thundered back in, it is truly one of the great moments in rock. My only minor gripe with the setlist tonight would be the exclusion of the monumental “Moonlight on Vermont” for a rather perfunctory cover of “Little Red Rooster”, but hey you can’t have everything.

As the crowd filed out into the night, the chatter was good but tinged with regret that this is the end of the road. It’s a real shame we won’t be seeing the likes of the Magic Band again, however, one bright spot on the horizon could be the return of “Drumbo” in his own right fronting a band performing his own compositions, with a handful of Beefheart favourites thrown in for good measure. Let’s hope the UK promoters get on board and he pulls it off, there’s life in the “Old Fart” yet, and we want to see him play, “Fast and bulbous, got me”.

Set list
Floppy Boot Stomp
Low YoYo Stuff
25th Century Quaker
Hot Head
When it Blows it Stacks
Steal Softly Thru Snow
A Carrot is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond
Dropout Boogie
The Clouds Are Full of Wine (Not Whiskey or Rye) Instrumental
Abba Zabba
Hobo Chang Ba

Drum Solo
On Tomorrow
Hair Pie Bake 1
Alice in Blunderland
Suction Prints
My Human Gets Me Blues
Bat Chain Puller
Click Clack
Little Red Rooster
Owed T’ Alex
Big Eyed Beans From Venus

Words by John Cherry.

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