Sunday, 1 June 2014

The Magic Band - The West End Centre Aldershot 31st May 2014

Captain Beefheart was a painter who loved the Blues. He imagined a new music through his painterly mind, and drilled The Magic Band to be able to play it. That involved not playing how musicians normally play, and not thinking like it either. He appears, like all driven originals, to have been a difficult taskmaster and The Magic Band went through a lot of lineup changes over the years. Commercial success evaded them (I believe the band members never saw a cent from any of this) despite the fact that they were clearly light years ahead of contemporaries (I always recommend that you listen to a track from the Stones and Zeppelin from any given year and then listen to a Magic Band track. Much as I love the former - they're just beginners compared with what the Cap was imagining and what his band were doing with those visions). A string of bad luck, bad timing, bad deals...well, bad everything for years through the 70's beat them up real bad. And then there was an incredible late flowering of 3 stunning albums before Beefheart called it a day and returned to California to paint. By this time everyone in bands had realised that everyone else in bands had been massively influenced by this band - EVERYONE!
Sorry about the pre-amble but I became aware last night that quite a few of the audience didn't know the music, and had come out of curiosity and respect. That is wonderful, because what I'm trying to put across is that there was no one Magic Band. There were many different line-ups. Each had different biases and skills and brought something new to the Captains music. So what do we have this time? The genuinely legendary rhythm section of John 'Drumbo' French and Mark 'Rockette Morton' Boston. Except John, who has spent years putting this together (more bad luck) can nail Beefhearts vocs so he is doing that + harp + soprano sax + hat! On acid/slide guitar they have Denny 'Feelers Rebo' Walley the genius who co-helmed the late flowering albums (whilst also playing with Frank Zappa and Tom Waits!!!). And then we have the new boys Eric Klerks on guitar and Andrew Niven percussion (drums really does not do him justice) and they are extremely important here because this ain't no tribute band. This is the NEW Magic Band and they are magnificent.
Ok I have to mention one other person that's important here. The Captain. There is a chance that his absence now is significant because, while his incredible music remains, his oppressive off-stage character has gone. and that has resulted in these lovely fellows having fun. I saw them before, during, and after the gig. Their manner (even their clothes) didn't change for the whole day. How they are on stage, is exactly how they are off stage...they are having fun and it pours through the music. At the soundcheck they were trying to ascertain how long they could play for. Not how short, but how long!!! Remember they are in the middle of a gruelling UK tour and some of these men are not young. It was like they were negotiating for how long they could keep the onstage party going.
I'm going to struggle with describing the gig so I'll just throw shapes like the good cap'n did. The first set was really funky - I've never noticed that before. Eric Klerks, I subsequently found, is from New Orleans and it's that southern fish fry funk that was bubblin' through. Also a friend pointed out that Mark Boston plays bass (the current axe was only acquired three days ago, I hasten to add) with the fluidity and bounce of dub reggae! It's a really good point - if you slowed his playing right down. So we're talking grooves. I am currently sporting 2 injured ankles and a dodgy knee but even I was boogieing. Their snake-sliding desert blues is a given. John French is incredible out front. He has his own separate little sound system because he's singing, doing the odd dances, wailing on the harp and blasting free jazz on the sax. He also has a neat trick going with Andrew Niven where they swap over on percussion without missing a beat so that the drummer keeps changing mid-song! Technically incredible. At the end of the first set they did Kandy Korn which is one of my favourite pieces of music. It starts with native American mysticism; goes into a boogie and then there is a second passage where the guitars become dreams and smoke in a style that New York minimalists used. So no pressure on Mr Klerks then! He absolutely ruled it, putting in his own little jazz-inflected runs and making it his own. It brought the place down. In fact every time they went into improvised passages the crowd went mad.
The band then have about 20mins chatting to the people. They were knocked out to find that a 14 year old girl was attending her first gig! Talk about setting the bar high. Anyway photos were taken with the band and a poster was signed (not just signed, but with messages and thanks) I saw her afterwards still clinging to that poster.
Ok second set, and this is where I lost it. John French seemed to be checking the drum kit as people were drifting back in, but this morphed into a jaw-dropping solo - at times it sounded like two drummers playing in different rhythms! Then the band launched into free jazz for 2 or 3 numbers including the best 'Hair Pie bake 1' I have ever heard. It was like these 5 guys suddenly became Sun Ra's Arkestra! Every Denny Walley solo from then on was an acid rock take on slide - absolutely blistering. He also did something with the slide which sounded like a chain of effects - but I was stood right in front of him and it was just the string and the slide - no tricks! Rock, Boogie, Jazz, Poetry, Avant-Garde, Funk, Modern Classical, Dub, Free Improvisation, Humour, Blues, Art, Mysticism, an imagined American spirit. This was about 15 different concerts all taking place at the same time but with different time signatures. Quantum Mechanics made sound :-)
My abiding memory will be the JOY though. The band are loving this incarnation. The audience loved every twist and turn - and these guys have more of those than a snake on a boiling dune.

The rest of the tour is here - don't miss them!
P.S. I absolutely have to mention the sound. The sound engineer at the West End Centre likes her anonymity so I can't mention names, but the Band DID mention at the soundcheck how superb the sound was. Then in the second set they insisted on repeating this and having the whole audience applaud her. And THEN after the encores John French marched straight off the stage to thank her again personally! A testimony to how lovely this band is and the world class quality of this venue in Aldershot.
P.P.S. There is now a link to some superb film of the gig in the comments section. My thanks to Clint Walker (who I now realise I was stood next to for the entire second set!)


  1. Nice piece Toby.
    This might help explain a little more;

    1. Thanks so much for the link Clint, and thanks for stopping by - I really appreciate it.

  2. Saw the band last year - one of the best gigs ever. And looking forward to seeing them this Saturday in Highbury. BUT absolutely gutted that Really Live Music failed to mention they were playing 20 minutes away in Aldershot last weekend. Oh wait, Aldershot's not London is it? But Hertford is? I need another website.

  3. It was a really great gig, wasn't sure what to expect and was overwhelmed with how good they were. Particularly enjoyed Mirror Man. Well worth the 70 mile drive from Dorset, I'm even thinking of going to see them in Bristol again this week. And the sound was certainly good, in fact I've been to a few gigs lately where the sound has been of a really high standard - recent Hawkfest in particular - welcome trend. Someone at the front was videoing the gig, seemingly with management approval as they were spoken to at one point, maybe a copy will surface.

  4. Everyone - if you look at the first comment from Clint Walker he was filming this gig and has posted a link to some of the footage :-)