Friday, July 4, 2014

CD Review: Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band's Live From Harpos 1980

Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band's Live from Harpos 1980
Don Van Vliet, better known by his stage name Captain Beefheart, is one of those hipster musical icons that a lot of people have heard of, but far fewer have actually heard. A talented multi-instrumentalist (harmonica, saxophone, clarinet) and dynamic singer, Vliet was influenced by the blues and jazz music of his youth, taking his cue from artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, and John Coltrane. As a teenager, he would become friends with like-minded musical oddball Frank Zappa, a contentious relationship that began in the 1950s and was on/off until Zappa’s death in 1993. The collaboration resulted in several recordings over the years, including one fine full-length album, 1975’s Bongo Fury.


The Magic Band

Taking on the stage name Captain Beefheart, Van Vliet hooked up with the Magic Band, a Los Angeles-based R&B outfit. Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band (as they were originally billed) recorded a couple of bluesy but unconventional singles for A&M Records that got them dumped by the label. After the Captain shook-up the band’s line-up and brought in guitarist Ry Cooder (then of blues-rock outfit Rising Sons), they recorded the Safe As Milk album for Buddah Records in 1967. Displaying a heavy blues influence, the album would nonetheless offer signs of Beefheart’s future musical amalgam of psychedelic rock, blues, improvisational jazz, and avant-garde experimentation that would result in 1969’s Trout Mask Replica, an album of such enduring weirdness and timelessness that it has influenced countless songwriters and musicians to follow, from Tom Waits to Sonic Youth and beyond.

Beefheart recorded thirteen albums with the Magic Band between 1965 and 1982, when he hung up his microphone for a life of creative contemplation and visual art, a rare case of an influential musician making the leap into the art world, where Van Vliet’s drawings and paintings demanded premium pricing and were exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide. During his tenure at the head of the Magic Band, however, Beefheart’s artistic temperament earned him the reputation of being a real asshole. A strict bandleader and notorious cheapskate, Beefheart kept his bandmates in perpetual poverty and frequently abused them verbally and, sometimes, physically.


Captain Beefheart's Live From Harpos 1980

Still, due to his recognized genius, Beefheart was able to recruit and keep a number of extremely talented musicians in his Magic Band through the years. Such was the case as illustrated by Live From Harpos 1980, an invaluable document that captures a remarkable performance by Beefheart & the Magic Band at Harpos, a longstanding Detroit concert venue, in December 1980. Touring in support of the Doc at the Radar Station album, which was released in August 1980, the Magic Band that backed up Beefheart in the Motor City included guitarist Jeff Moris Tepper, bassist Eric Drew Feldman, and drummer Robert Arthur Williams, all of which had also appeared on 1978’s Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) album. The line-up on this cold night in Detroit was rounded out by guitarists Richard Snyder and Jeff Tapir/White.

The Reverend attended this show at Harpos; I frequently haunted the club (as well as the New Miami) after getting off work from the Trailways bus station in downtown Detroit. Since it began hosting rock ‘n’ roll shows in 1973, Harpos had become a worthy heir to Russ Gibbs’ legendary Grande Ballroom, hosting shows by artists as diverse as Ted Nugent, Mitch Ryder, Johnny Winter, Cheap Trick and, yes, Captain Beefheart. The club moved more towards heavy metal in the 1980s, and rap/hip-hop in the 1990s (including legendary Goth rapper Esham, the real “Motor City Madman”); best I can tell, they’re still rockin’ at Harpos today. I probably got to the club late; as I wouldn’t have left downtown until midnight, but I wasn’t going to pass up the rare opportunity to catch Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band perform live, even if I don't remember much of it today (after the beer-fueled decade of the '80s).

The set list for Live From Harpos 1980 is appropriately heavy on material from Radar Station, comprising six of that album’s twelve songs, including a growling, snarling performance of “Hot Head” that features some stellar guitarplay with shotgun solos, and Beefheart’s mesmerizing vocals dancing sloppily atop a fractured, circular rhythm. “Ashtray Heart” is of a similar construct, with Beefheart’s scatting vocals be-bopping alongside a syncopated soundtrack and squalls of razor-sharp guitar. The sagely-titled “A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Gets To A Diamond” is an enchanting, all too brief instrumental with guitars intertwining to create an elegant, classically-oriented soundscape that is atypical for the Captain and his band.


Bat Chain Puller

Among its 17 songs, Live From Harpos 1980 also includes several choice cuts from across the band’s storied career. The Delta blues-influenced “Abba Zabba” is a throwback from the Safe As Milk album, a dark-hued stomper with tribal rhythms and the Captain’s best raspy, Howlin’ Wolf styled sandpaper vocals. “My Human Gets Me Blues” dates back to Trout Mask Replica, the song a nifty lil’ slice o’ jump ‘n’ jive with surreal, seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyrics and a cacophonic symphony as a backdrop. Originally recorded to appear on an unreleased (until 2012) album of the same name, “Bat Chain Puller” landed on Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller); its performance here is all right angles, with raw, primal, often-screamed vocals and jumbled instrumentation that often works at cross purposes with itself.

Also from Shiny Beast, “Suction Prints” is the sound of collapsing buildings, with Beefheart’s tortured saxophone up front, barely escaping from the instrumental barrage of squealing guitars, madcap drumbeats, and thunderous rhythms. In the best Beefheart tradition, it sounds like it was created by a brace of insane criminals who broke out of the asylum and found refuge in a recording studio, each inmate taking out their hostilities and fractured obsessions on the innocent instruments.


The Reverend's Bottom Line

The sound on Live From Harpos 1980 is a notch above bootleg quality – hollow, muddy, slightly distorted, and with a bit of echo – most of which is par for the era in which it was recorded, some of which is due to the provenance of the original tape, no doubt (sounds to my ears like a good audience recording). Since Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band never released a live album during the nearly two decades of their existence, however, and as there are only a handful of readily available live Beefheart albums to be found, Live From Harpos 1980 is a welcome addition to the artist’s canon. The performances are singularly abrasive, and thoroughly entertaining, if you’re of a similar mindset (and evidently a small number of us fellow travelers are in that odd position). Captain Beefheart isn’t for everybody, but he might just be for you! (Gonzo Multimedia, released May 13, 2014)

Buy the CD from Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band's Live From Harpos 1980

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