The main problem The Magic Band have as a touring group is… well, the lack of Captain Beefheart, frankly. As their front man and songwriter, he gave electric, unpredictable performances of some of rock and roll’s most esoteric, fascinating compositions and arrangements. Remove him from the equation and you can’t help but feel that all you’re left with is a competent backing band.
That was my main concern when seeing them live in Colchester last weekend. Not unjustly either I think – the last backing band I saw perform without their original front man was The Blockheads, a group of men who look utterly dead inside performing songs that were only ever interesting because of Ian Dury. But Beefheart’s work was always far more complex; compare a track like Moonlight On Vermont to Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick and the difference is glaring.
The Magic Band as they are now, with original member John French replacing Don Van Vliet on vocals, and long-standing members Denny Walley and Mark Boston with Eric Klerks and Craig Bunch, are very faithful to the original work, which is to their credit, because it not only puts paid to the idea that much of their work was improvised, but it would seem crass to perform it any other way. French does not and cannot replicate the depth of the original vocals, effectively playing Paul Rodgers’ role in the reformed Queen – he’s not trying to be Freddy Mercury, he’s doing it his own way.
Unsurprisingly, this feels like a greatest hits set (well, they’re unlikely to poach from Unconditionally Guaranteed, are they?) so every track feels like a classic. There was a leaning towards early material, with much of the repertoire from Safe As Milk, Trout Mask Replica and the two Spot albums. Their first set felt the more restrained of the two, with tracks like Big Eyed Beans From Venus and Lick My Decals Off Baby coming close to wrongfooting the audience. Their second set however, opening with both Bakes of Hair Pie and climaxing with Moonlight On Vermont, showed exactly what was so brilliant about Captain Beefheart – arrangements that are as sublime as they are ridiculous, and some of rock’s most uniquely angular lyrics.
Friends had warned me that they had found previous Magic Band shows boring at best, and desecration of Vliet’s memory at worst. I couldn’t disagree more – even without having the man himself on stage, this is as fine a rock performance as I’ve ever seen. They seemed to enjoy it too:
…other bands would kill for an audience like that! The bottom line is that we had an immense evening with all of you and got back at least as much as we gave. Our audiences are probably the most respectful open-minded people you could ever hope to play for and it makes this job the best job in the world! Thank you Colchester.
Support came from Cambridge wonk-pop maestro Pete Um. A friend of mine once described him as me, in ten years time. He’s got an album out on Felix Kubin’s label. Check him out.