Tag Archives: Rockette MortonImage
A Chronology of The Magic Band
A Brief History of The Magic Band
Here’s a press release I drafted up and offered to the MB at the start of the big tour, 2014.
They declined ………………………………………………………………………..the fools!
A Brief History of The Magic Band.
Formed, fifty years ago during 1964, in the Mojave Desert’s Antelope Valley enclave of Lancaster, ‘Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band’ was originally a young blues band of fierce local repute.
Over the ensuing seventeen years, due to the despotic behaviour of their leader/singer, the band saw 49 different musicians pass through its ranks; some more than once. During this time they played 500 performances, both in the USA & Europe, saw Top Twenty Album success in the UK and recorded a total of thirteen albums on a variety of labels between 1967’s seminal debut ‘Safe as Milk ‘and their swansong released in 1981.
The band finally imploded following the ‘Ice Cream for Crow’ recordings, with Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, making the decision to withdraw completely from music, in order to be taken more seriously as a painter.
Magic Band no more!
Van Vliet died in December 2010.
However, back in 2003, following a twenty two year furlough, John ‘Drumbo’ French, who had previously left and re-joined Van Vliet, on three separate occasions, decided and managed to reform ‘The Magic Band’ using musicians from right across the timespan of its long and chequered career.
This initial line up involved French, with the two guitarists, Denny ‘Feelers Rebo’ Walley (Bat Chain Puller) & Gary ‘Mantis’ Lucas (Ice Cream For Crow), being joined on bass by Mark Boston, aka Rockette Morton.
Boston had made his original debut on the ground-breaking and influential Trout Mask Replica and stayed on, in the band, for another four albums, up to and including Unconditionally Guaranteed, whereupon following a long ongoing (and ultimately fruitless) pay dispute, the entire band upped and left Beefheart, to his own devices, immediately prior to a 1974 European promotional tour.
The band’s most famous UK champion, BBC DJ John Peel was quoted as describing that particular album, Trout Mask Replica, thus “If there has been anything in the history of popular music which could be described as a work of art in a way that people who are involved in other areas of art would understand, then Trout Mask Replica is probably that work.”
Meanwhile writer and cartoonist, Matt Groening of The Simpsons, both a fan and benefactor, is on record as calling it ‘the greatest album ever made’.
To put those remarks into some perspective, in 2011, Trout Mask Replica was added to the United States National Recording Registry, by the Library of Congress. (along with John Fahey’s ‘Blind Joe Death’, Professor Longhair’s ‘Tipitina’ & Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” – august company, indeed!)
Since reforming, The Magic Band, with a variety of personnel, has released four albums:
- Back to the Front (All Tomorrows Parties,2003)
- 21st Century Mirror Men (Proper Records ,PRPCD026, 2005, )
- Oxford, UK – June 6, 2005 (Sundazed, SC11212, 2011)
- The Magic Band plays the Music of Captain Beefheart live in London 2013 (Proper Records,PRPCD116, 2013)
Elaine Shepherd’s documentary Crow’s Milk, featuring interviews & 2003 rehearsals accompanied by footage of the complete London Shepherds Bush Empire show, was released in 2006.
During this busy and fertile period, John French has also recorded a well-reviewed solo album City of Refuge (Proper, 2009) as well as writing the 800 page, sometimes harrowing but always joyfully detailed account of his period(s) as Beefheart’s drummer, within what occasionally appears to be as perilously close to a cult, as it does a band.
“Beefheart; Through The Eyes of Magic” long since sold out its original print run but has recently been reprinted in hard and paperback. (Proper)
The current line-up, playing tunes from all but two of the Beefheart album canon, are:
John “Drumbo” French – Vocals, Harmonica, Saxophone, Guitar, Drums.
Denny “Feelers Rebo” Walley – Slide Guitar
Mark “Rockette Morton” Boston – Bass Guitar
Eric Klerks – Guitar
Andrew Niven – Drums
2014 will see the group tour the UK, ‘debut’ in Australia and West Coast USA as well as playing many Festivals, including Zappanale 25, in Bad Doberon, Germany.
If you have yet to encounter this band, make a point to do so, as soon as you can. You are in for a treat; you will never see or hear anyone else like them.
This IS The Magic Band!
…..and as Matt Groening said ‘True Beefheart Believers, …REJOICE!’
Like father, like daughter………….
An English ‘un, a Belgian, an Irishman and a Scotsman all walk into a bar!
This set flowed quite perfectly. ‘We are the Magic Band and we’re here to play the music of Captain Beefheart’ announces Drumbo as he declares the evening’s manifesto that has, of late, become the band’s opening mantra. A small jump in the air follows and, as his feet re-connect with the stage, the five of them career off into track twelve from Trout Mask Replica.
My Human Gets Me Blues has been the set opener for the last few years and it sets out the stall, nails their colours to the mast and most importantly delivers the goods, big style!
The way you were dancin’ I knew you’d never come back
You were strainin’ t’ keep yer
Old black cracked patent shoes
In this lifetime you got m’humangetsmeblues
Other bands with a tune as strong as Lo Yo Yo Stuff would hold it back, until near the end of the night, but blimey, look, here it is already pushing its way to the front of the queue, the heavily tremeloed chords cascading from Eric’s Jaguar, tell us that absolutely no prisoners are being considered tonight.
But woah, slow down there, big fella, and let’s rewind for a moment.The gig in question is in the Borderline in Soho, a small venue if not bijou. Probably, at best, the size of Glasgow’s ‘King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut’, should it ever got the chance to inhale and stick it’s chest out.
This is my fourth Magic Band encounter this year, lucky ol’ me!
We, that is Shields, Lenka, Stanistreet, along with the troubadour Alan Burke, sporting a coat that I’m certain Abraham Van Helsing would be proud to be seen in, arrive with only a few minutes to spare before showtime. There’s no support involved tonight, as the intention is to perform two sets with the usual ‘meet & greet’ at the interval.
It’s absolutely rammed full and it’s a major endeavour to get across the floor to the ‘lengthy but surprisingly not really doing a lot of business’ bar. Having eventually arrived there, we are all immediately separated by a slowly moving herd of docile greybeards.The sound from here is perfect but the sightlines are fairly poor. It’s easier and better to watch on the large TV screens dotted about the place, but not ideal.
A young man then attempts to use Shields as a tripod for his camcording endeavours and is quickly advised, by yours truly, that this is not today’s best idea!
Bo Diddley’s Diddy Wah Diddy has more of a bounce to it, tonight, than recently. I’ll have to source bootlegs, but to me it sounded a fair bit more uptempo than of late.
This is immediately followed by Rockette’s regular bass solo, which in turn makes way for a wonderful Spitball improv duet (with John on sax and new drummer Andy Niven showing he’s got more than enough chops, to hold his end up in this company). That then leads us into a wonderful Golden Birdies, with Eric Klerks replicating Zoot and Art Tripp’s guitar/marimba part(s). At the conclusion, as has become tradition, the crowd to a man shout the Webcor Webcor refrain. I say ‘to a man’ quite deliberately, as this is the most gender skewed MB audience I think I’ve ever encountered. Apart from the women in our coterie, I can only see another three!
Hot Head sees a third guitar being dusted off and brought into action by the singer.This song, rather oddly, always reminds me of DEVO. In my head, an invisible mellotron blasts away, behind the motorik beat.
It’s almost, what some would call, Krautrock.
When Prog-rock friends play their usual party game and ask what my favourite mellotron tune is, they’re always somewhat crestfallen when I cite Hothead over, let’s say, King Crimson’s Epitaph, along with everything by Yes and The Moody Blues.
Dr Dark is a relatively new addition to the portfolio (not quite sure why, however I imagine EK being the driving force behind it’s inclusion in the latest set) and tonight they play it as a full quintet. On the last tour, Mark used this spot to go for a breather, but tonight’s five piece arrangement allows the Jaguar to ‘double’ or ‘mirror’ some of the bass lines. This is torrid stuff indeed.Not one for the faint of heart!
Circumstances has become the traditional first set closer. Therefore when John starts singing ‘Little girl don’t you know that the stars, up above, are runnin’ on love’, I know it’s time for yours truly to signal to the barman for a quick (and only my second, mind) Guinness, as the interval is looming and a stampede barwards is quite probable. Last time I heard them perform this, in England, I got a mid-song name check. It is with considerable regret, that I report no such luck, tonight!
The interval arrives and it’s a surprisingly long one. The two of us stroll quickly forward, unchallenged, until we are only three folk back from the stage. Close enough to see the whites of their eyes and, I dare say, if you were really determined you could get close enough to smell them. New vantage point secured, the interval seems to go on forever (A small eternity with Yoko Ono!). However this is leavened by realizing we’re stood right next to Christine Barfoot and Jeff Preece from Wales, nearby is Clint Walker and we’re close to Jan Podsiadly (who kindly provided these photographs).
Up until today I’ve only spoken to these lovely people online!
On my way towards the toilets, I bump into Denny, who’s pressing the flesh, and getting his picture taken, with seemingly every woman in the place. I tell him how much I’m enjoying the show so far.
Just wait till you hear the second set he replies with that marvellous twinkle in his eye.
Eventually, with the merch stall now bereft of goodies (I left it too late to get a teeshirt) the older drummer returns onstage, tinkers for longer than he should with his equipment (it’s Drumbo, it’s what he does!) before sitting down and starting a solo that slowly builds and builds and, yes, builds again. Whether it’s his tap dance training or, more likely, a double beater pedal on the kick drum, he certainly creates what Glaswegians would call ‘a stooshie’ until the three guitarists walk on plug in and deliver an immaculate and surgically precise ‘On Tomorrow’
Not a drop of that ‘bromo seltzer’ stuff in sight!
Alice in Blunderland sees Eric step up to the mark. This is one of the only Beefheart tunes, I can think of, where a guitarist is allowed absolutely free rein. Back in the seventies, it must have been quite galling for Zoot to ‘hold the formation’ every night while Elliot was allowed to take a ‘normal solo’.
Playing through an amp combo, so small that I ponder for a while and convince myself that I own bigger shoeboxes, Eric (Winged Eel FingerKlerk) then lets rip and a lot of the lines and phrases deployed from his fretboard are more reminiscent of a horn player than guitarist (go figure!). I always hear a lot of Tom Verlaine when Eric takes this solo and that’s not a complaint!
I’d always considered Suction Prints as the runt of the litter and perhaps an underdeveloped backing track that was used as filler, on Shiny Beast. Tonight, the scales fell from my eyes and the tune finally made sense. Denny’s really on fire and showing off what he can do on slide. He’s firing out chord shapes so flagrantly bright that I become concerned about the welfare of the ends of my my carefully coiffured moustache. Suction Prints? This is a full blown ‘lizard on a window pane’ (see what I did there?)
A tasty Hair Pie is proferred for our consumption, one of my favourites from TMR, and at this point it crosses my mind that, so far, the second set has been entirely instrumental, as well as being entirely mental! With Drumbo remaining behind the traps, young Andy’s probably having a relaxing nap backstage.
Back in March, having travelled down to Preston, I heard them play Owed T’Alex which was for me, the very first time. It was jawdrop time, back then, and nine months later it’s absolutely no different. Mark has his five string going through what he tells me later is ‘a little box that John gave me, I’m not too sure exactly what it does’. The result is a quite ridiculously fat analogue synth sound that really serves the song well and has the crowd swaying slowly back and forth as one.
I am now, more than ever, grinning like an idiot!
Then, with harp and slide guitar both mimicking a train whistle, echoing from the far end of the valley, John and Denny both slowly lead, force and cajole the other three into a Click Click that’s as good as these ears have heard.
It was just one of those magical nights.
Floppy Boot Stomp, Moonlight on Vermont – this band now plays these tunes better than anyone ever did (I’ve both seen and heard Don, I’ve listened to ALL the bootlegs and believe me, this crew is the real deal!) and then its the turn of THE hit that never was, Big Eyed Beans From Venus, the Beefheartian National (or should that be Planetary?) Anthem. I laugh to myself, nowadays, when I think that, the first time I ever heard this, back in the day, on Clear Spot, I thought they’d really sold out, man! At this point in the show, I was now so close to the stage, I could, for the first time ever, see who was playing each wee part. Lovely stuff indeed. All the women around me opened their purses and I let my wallet flop out!
And then suddenly, yet inevitably, its all over and they all quickly scuttle off to the left, waving and grinning at a noisy disbelieving crowd.
A quick breather and they return both to the stage and to the album where it all began, Safe As Milk.
The tune that this humble site takes its title from, is first off the blocks,its Electricity
the seemingly unusual and loping cadence of the bass line, tonight, is not actually the SAM album version but comes however from the early demo version, that can be found on the Grow Fins Boxset.
Anorak alert over!
and then its straight into Sure ’Nuff ‘N Yes I Do which, towards its end, segues into a double speed coda, quite gospelly in feel. Not too sure why, but Delaney & Bonnie sprang to mind when thinking about how to describe this section to pals.
All together a great evening, terrific performance, lovely company and a fitting conclusion to my gig going in 2013.Thank you to all concerned.
p.s. Those that want to see tonights drummer playing those two rather fine tunes, but forty five years earlier, should look at the video below, which I’ve posted simultanously to this one.
p.p.s. just realised I’d never actually written about the MB before. I must do it again. Whether that’s good news for the readership remains to be seen!
All photos, apart from Denny and my wife, come courtesy of Jan Podsiadly.
Check out how heavy/thick those strings are…..