Gig review: THE MAGIC BAND – Under The Bridge, London, 16 March 2013

There can be fewer stranger tales than the cult like relationship between the late Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band. His totalitarian grip on the line-up that recorded the groundbreaking ‘Trout Mask Replica’ album has spawned numerous articles, documentaries and debate. Original drummer/arranger and Beefheart’s MD John “Drumbo” French even wrote a book about it and yet here he was 40 years on, presenting die-hard Beefheart fans and a new generation of disciples with “the best batch yet”.

Drumbo was joined by former Magic Band Members slide guitarist Denny “Feelers Rebo” Wally (also a former Zappa alumni), and rock solid bass man Mark “Rockette Morton” Boston, who struck a colourful figure wholly in keeping with the Spotlight Kid favourite, ‘There Ain’t No Santa Claus on the Evening Stage’. The current line-up was completed by the considerable guitar chops of Eric Clerks and drummer Craig Bunch who shaped and anchored the oblique rhythms and stuttering time changes.

Aside from the opening drum solo of the second set, Drumbo mostly forsook his percussive credentials to concentrate on evoking Beefheart’s persona through his basso profundo voice, squealing harp and dissonant horn. His occasional contextual comments on songs like ‘Owed T’Alex’ also added an unexpected touch of authenticity.

The power of the band’s arrangements resonated in such a way that this reunion show was never in any danger of being compromised by the incongruous venue and dramatic light show. Indeed the combination of the band’s inspired playing and Drumbo’s profound wail transported the collective consciousness in the room back to a time when art, music and mime combined to create the Beefheart mystique.

French’s phrasing was mesmerising at times. He clearly learnt a lot from Beefheart’s refracted Howlin’ Wolf lineage, giving vent to a startling vocal range as the band knuckled down to master some of the most complex stop-start rhythms. They shifted from moments of individual virtuosity to intuitive unison playing, over oblique, fractured rhythms and back-end tension breaking moments that would make Ornette Coleman smile.

The enthusiastic audience was like a meeting of the tribes, from the disenchanted and disconnected to the weird and the wonderful. They danced like dervishes and made free form shapes to Drumbo’s lyrical recitations on ‘Golden Birdies’. His impeccable phrasing placed the emphasis on clarity of diction, before he delivered the perfect dénouement with the ‘webcore webcore’ finale.

The band hit its stride on jumping rhythms of ‘Hothead’ and the compressed funk of ‘Circumstances’, as French dominated the stage like a wound up version of his former employer, but with more choreography.

He made exaggerated shapes, explored some deep profound growls and immersed himself in the Beefheart oeuvre, but was never lost in it. Late on in the set, just like the best mime artists, he suddenly stood motionless, stared at the crowd and declared the moment to be “perfect”, before leading the band into a show stopping ‘Big Eyed Beans From Venus’.

The Magic Band judiciously worked its way through the relevant portions of Beefheart’s back catalogue, with Rockette Morton’s thunderous bass anchoring the jagged, colliding rhythms of “Owed T’Alex’, while French again revelled on ‘Steal Softly Through Sunshine, Steal Softly Through Snow’, one of the first songs the reformed band played.

‘Moonlight On Vermont’ even offered a sing-along moment with the priceless ‘gimme that old time religion’ line. Never was the weird and wonderful Beefheart musical universe more concisely distilled.

Eric Clerks and Denny Walley’s slide playing coalesced beautifully on the lunar ‘Clear Spot’, while ‘Electricity’ was another major highlight with Drumbo’s tension busting elongated vowel and deep-timbre soaring over an unlikely meeting of Delta blues and disco. The only slight disappoint on an otherwise memorable night was the absence of ‘Mirror Man’, a curious omission given the band’s own recent  ‘21st Century Mirror Men’ CD.

Review by Pete Feenstra

Photos by Pete Sargeant (www.fairhearing.co.uk/)


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