The Magic Band: Band On The Wall, Manchester, 7th March

As is always the case when seeing great bands from the 60s these days, the five men who make up the Magic Band that came on stage at the Band On The Wall on Thursday never played together before last year, so it’s probably best to start this brief review by saying who they are.

The lead guitarist, Eric Klerks, and drummer, Craig Bunch, are new members, though they played the parts accurately and well.

Three of them, though, were veterans of the classic Beefheart band, and looked it. Denny “Feelers Rebo” Walley, on rhythm guitar, resplendent in a sequined jacket, played with the band in 1975 and 76, after being hired away from Frank Zappa. Rockette Morton, on bass, looks like a cross between Father Christmas and everyone’s favourite English teacher, and played on four of the best albums ever between 1969 and 1974 and also on Unconditionally Guaranteed. And John “Drumbo” French, here taking the lead vocal spot but also playing soprano sax, guitar, harmonica and drums, was in and out of the band over the years, first joining just in time for their first album in 1966 and leaving for the last time in 1980. On Thursday he looked like Anton LaVey in cargo pants, though since French is a born-again Christian that might not be a comparison he’d approve of.

In fact, Beefheart-listeners have often noted a curious thing about the times French was in the band, which is that they coincide almost entirely with the times Beefheart and the Magic Band actually made good records. This coincidence makes more sense when you realise the way Beefheart worked, which is that he would sit down at a piano (which he could barely play) and hammer out his musical ideas, which would then be transcribed and arranged by French. While Beefheart was the creative genius of the band, French in his role as musical director was as important to the success of albums like Trout Mask Replica and Bat Chain Puller as, say, George Martin was to the Beatles’ work.

For those who aren’t familiar with the music of Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band, it’s some of the most wonderful, inventive music ever created, mixing the timbre of Chicago blues with the tonality and rhythms of free jazz, and adding beat poetry over the top. Most listeners seem to think the result is a godawful racket, but a large minority, including myself, think it among the best music we’ve ever heard.

And this band did a superb job. Understandably, the setlist was geared around the albums which best captured their artistic intentions — Trout Mask Replica, Clear Spot and Bat Chain Puller — with very little from the early recordings they did for Buddah records (which I personally like, as they sound like a cross between Howlin’ Wolf and the Monkees), although they did perform Gimme Dat Harp Boy and Electricity from those earlier albums. Rather less unfortunately, they also missed out the ‘tragic band’ albums Unconditionally Guaranteed and Bluejeans And Moonbeams.

This was the kind of intimate gig where the band are close enough to the audience that before the gig Rockette Morton had a conversation with me about how much better my beard is than his, but it was absolutely packed full of nerdy white men. I find it rather unfortunate that my tastes seem to be shared mostly by men, but as with most gigs I go to, at least 85% of the audience was made up of men over the age of thirty-five, and in one of three subgroups (fat and bearded, skinny and bespectacled, jeans and grey ponytail). This is doubly unfortunate as this is not a demographic noted for its ability to move to music with grace, and seeing several hundred malcoordinated men attempting to ‘dance’ to the intricate polyrhythms of this music was a hilarious sight. At one point, French started clapping in the air, and the whole audience joined in. Within seconds of him dropping his hands, the audience were clapping seven different distinct rhythms…

But this band are as good a live band as you’ll ever see. French is a fantastic frontman and singer — he actually sounds very, *very* like Beefheart. He doesn’t have Beefheart’s range or control, but nor does anyone else, and if you were to listen to a recording of him you’d think it was Beefheart on a less-than-great day. That sounds like damning with faint praise, but it really isn’t — *no-one* is as good as Beefheart, and that he sounds that close, on material I’m so familiar with, is a minor miracle.

And indeed, it was great to be in an audience full of people who knew and loved this music as much as I did. The single best moment was when, two songs in, Eric Klerks broke a string. While he was restringing his guitar, French did an impromptu a capella performance of Orange Claw Hammer, and most of the audience sang along. I never in my life thought I’d be in a crowd full of people all singing “Come little one with yer little ole dimpled fingers gimme one ‘n I’ll buy you uh cherry phosphate/Take you down t’ the foamin’ brine ‘n water ‘n show you the wooden tits on the Goddess with the pole out full sail/That tempted away yer peg legged father”. It’s certainly a unique experience.

There’s a certain amount of progginess to the band — Rockette Morton gets to do a whole song as a bass solo, and there’s a drum duet which starts off with Bunch playing a solo, then French joining him on the same kit and moving across into Bunch’s stool while both keep playing, French playing solo for a while, then Bunch moving back in from the other side and taking over again. But that kind of excess makes the show all the better — these aren’t men who are concerned in the slightest about seeming cool or ‘authentic’, but rather they just want to make their music.

For me, the highlight of the show was Rockette Morton’s bass playing. Morton seems rather ignored by the audience, because French is the frontman while Walley is known to audiences in the North-West of England from his regular performances with Liverpudlian Zappa tribute band The Muffin Men. But this is music that’s simultaneously incredibly complex, with people often playing in three or four different time signatures simultaneously, and surprisingly funky. The bass player is always a crucial element in keeping a band together, and for music like this the slightest timing discrepancy could be fatal, but Morton is quite possibly the best bass player I’ve ever heard live (and I’ve heard quite a few good ones).

This isn’t music for everyone, but if you like the Magic Band’s music at all I can’t recommend them highly enough.

(Also, on their merchandise stalls they have copies of French’s 2010 book Beefheart Through The Eyes Of Magic. I picked one up and from the first few chapters I’d say it was an essential book for anyone who likes the music of Beefheart or Zappa, or even who likes any Southern Californian music from the late 50s through the 70s.)

None of the show I saw has yet made it to YouTube, but here’s Electricity from Preston a couple of nights earlier. The Magic Band are still touring — go and see them if you can.

OK… that was Electricity when I pasted the link in, but it seems to have turned into Click-Clack overnight. Oh well. Both great tracks.

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9 Responses to The Magic Band: Band On The Wall, Manchester, 7th March

  1. lucidfrenzy says:

    ”In fact, Beefheart-listeners have often noted a curious thing about the times French was in the band, which is that they coincide almost entirely with the times Beefheart and the Magic Band actually made good records.”

    The only thing I’d say there is that Drumbo was on so many of the albums it’s hard to get a point of comparison. And the two Tragic Band albums you mention don’t have very many classic Magic Band members on them at all, he’s not the only absence. Plus I don’t think he was involved in the final album, ‘Ice Cream For Crow’, which while it isn’t my absolute favourite is still damn good coffee.

    ”While Beefheart was the creative genius of the band, French in his role as musical director was as important to the success of albums like Trout Mask Replica and Bat Chain Puller as, say, George Martin was to the Beatles’ work.”

    There’s a comparison of sorts to be made there, sure. But I think it does Drumbo’s contribution down a little. The Beatles gave Martin a lot more to work with than Beefheart gave Drumbo. This whole debate gets a bit Lee/Kirby in it’s polarity, some like to imagine the Captain was a dyed-in-the-wool genius and the Magic Band mere hired help, others that he was just some crazy guy who they made it their art project to interpret his rantings in the form of music. Inevitably the truth is somewhere between the two. But I think Beefheart was dependent on someone like Drumbo to ground his high-falutin’ ideas and turn them into musical parts.

    ”But this is music that’s simultaneously incredibly complex, with people often playing in three or four different time signatures simultaneously, and surprisingly funky.”

    Now that’s striking the nail on the head! The magic of the Magic Band may all be in that one sentence. Music that’s crazy and free, but the players all still come together.

    • Yeah, it’s a difficult problem trying to find a parallel — perhaps Cleese & Chapman would be a better comparison? — but I was thinking of things like Beefheart telling French to “play it like a strawberry” and how John Lennon’s only instruction to Martin about how he should orchestrate (I think it was) Strawberry Fields was “make it sound like an orange”.

      • lucidfrenzy says:

        Cleese and Chapman might be a good comparison, yeah. Lennon’s instructions to Martin got a little… um… abstract at times but I reckon he was always starting with more of a song than Beefheart. I think no-one would have had those wild ‘n’ wooly ideas apart from Beefheart, but he needed someone else to do the hard work of making them into workable songs. Though it should be admitted that Martin’s treatment of those Lennon songs is more than window dressing, to the point where tracks like ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ can’t really be separated from the song any more.

        Actually, thinking more about what I said, several of the tracks from ‘Ice Cream For Crow’ were already written some time before while Drumbo was still in the band. So it’s not impossible he did have some contribution, even if he didn’t play on the actual album.

        • lucidfrenzy says:

          Actually, did you get that from Clinton Heylin? He had a thing about Lennon being Chapman and McCartney Cleese in his book on why he doesn’t like Sgt. Pepper much. (Perhaps an unusual subject on which to base a book.) Whichever way, I think its a workable metaphor.

          • Andrew Hickey says:

            No, I don’t think I’ve ever read any of Heylin’s books — it’s a comparison I use quite often. (One of the more amusing conversations I had with Tilt when I was co-writing songs with him for the National Pep was a misunderstanding when it turned out that we both thought of ourselves as the Chapman figure and the other as Cleese…)

            • lucidfrenzy says:

              That sounds like a sketch in the making! You’d just need a chorus of middle-aged guys doing malcoordinated dancing in the background…

  2. Joe S. Walker says:

    “I find it rather unfortunate that my tastes seem to be shared mostly by men, but as with most gigs I go to, at least 85% of the audience was made up of men over the age of thirty-five, and in one of three subgroups (fat and bearded, skinny and bespectacled, jeans and grey ponytail). This is doubly unfortunate as this is not a demographic noted for its ability to move to music with grace, and seeing several hundred malcoordinated men attempting to ‘dance’ to the intricate polyrhythms of this music was a hilarious sight.”

    I think “fuck you” is the appropriate response to that.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Really? Because I don’t. It might not be clear from that post, but anyone who’s read any of my other blog posts will know that I am a fat, bearded, malcoordinated white man, and I was including myself in that description.

      • lucidfrenzy says:

        I think “yep, you’re right” is the appropriate response there.

        The audience at the Brighton gig certainly filled out those three subgroups. I was doing my bit to keep the numbers up for the skinny and bespectacled camp, and while there was no actual award given for Most Malcoordinated Male Dancer I’m sure I was a shoo-in for it.

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