No Captain, but a Beefheartless supergroup assembled from various Magic line-ups
The Magic Band without its Captain makes surprising sense. After all, the freakish aspect of Trout Mask Replica was the way the musically limited Beefheart left its detailed creation to his talented, tyrannised group?drummer John French being charged with laboriously translating the Captain’s mental scraps of shattered blues, Ornette Coleman and poetry into playable music. Mark Boston was at those sessions, too, while Gary Lucas was around for the finish of 1982’s Ice Cream For Crow, before Beefheart transformed back into Don Van Vliet, respected painter and desert recluse.
The Magic Band’s invitation to Autechre’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, and the current running from them through Pere Ubu, Tom Waits and The Fall to today’s avant-rock, shows their continued relevance. But these rehearsals of old favourites can’t yet prove the contention of several Trout Mask veterans: that the control freak Captain hobbled as well as inspired a Band who would sometimes have been more Magic without him.
French bravely stands in on vocals, imitating but not inhabiting Beefheart’s tortured growl. Direct comparison to original tracks shows little difference in the new line-up, bar Denny Walley and Lucas’ guitars sometimes sliding into each other, and markedly better mouth organ (Beefheart’s main instrumental contribution). Listening to “Steal Softly Through The Snow”, though, the Magic Band’s specialness still shines. Its unnaturally clipped guitars and off-kilter beats sound remarkably like Four Tet’s current computer-constructed tunes out on electronica’s frontier. Tumbling, collapsing yet somehow coherent, it still travels new roads for music. Beefheart’s notorious divide-and-rule band regime surely helped create its sound of conflicted unity. But the gleeful chatter on Back To The Front shows those moods are a bad memory for this Happy Band. With a new record proper promised for later this year, we’ll see what they add to their lost leader’s legacy.