The World of Captain Beefheart by Gary Lucas & Nona Hendryx

Release date: November 10, 2017
Label: Knitting Factory Records

At first glance this appears to be a ‘does what it says on the tin’ type deal. Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx play a selection of Beefheart numbers. That’s what you get, some great performances of great material, it’s a solid record, no doubt. No one embarrasses themselves here or makes a pitiful mess of any cherished classics, don’t worry. But from the title on down it puts itself in Don Van Vliet’s considerable shadow and no, it’s not as good as the originals.

Once you get the lid off the tin though it’s not nearly as clear what you got in there. Lucas, for his part, was a member of the late period Magic Band but has been no slouch since (check out his extensive discography) and is a self selected keeper of the Captain’s flame. Among other projects he has a free jazz group called Fast ‘n’ Bulbous that deals in instrumental explorations of Beefheart material, a couple of whom form the rhythm section here.

He and Hendryx starred in a Beefheart Tribute with Amsterdam’s Metropole Orchestra a few years ago and have put on similar live tribute shows. It’s easy to see the appeal of such events and the inexorable logic that leads to this recording but a live event is one thing, an album is another. Their intention is never completely clear or fully realised. Captain Beefheart may have been born in the desert and come on up from New Orleans, his pockets filled with the blues and the whole sweep of American music tucked like a rail ticket in the brim of his hat, but history has him buried out in the desert with his primitive paintings and a heavy ‘cult artist and weirdo’ sign hung about his tired old neck. This is both unfair and untrue, essentially mistaking the strange and awkward adventure of ‘Trout Mask Replica‘ for the entirety of his output.

At least some of the impetus here seems to be a desire to reconnect the Captain with some of those older streams he stirred into his own psychedelic musical pot. It starts out boldly enough with Lucas’s guitar slashing in on a sprightly but faithful run at ‘Sun, Zoom, Spark’ and Hendryx bringing a completely commanding vocal. The choice of Hendryx is something of a masterstroke it has to be admitted, not merely saving us from some teeth-itching Beefheart impersonation but bringing a huge voice, a love of the material and a career’s experience singing both straight up funk ‘n’ soul and more left field rock music. She particularly shines on the four selections from ‘Clear Spot‘ which run a little closer to the blues and soul numbers they always were at heart. Gorgeous harmony backing vocals lift them and there’s some great church organ flowing through ‘Too Much Time’. The pinnacle of this is the swooning soul of ‘I’m Glad’, all synchronised dance steps and finger pops on the snare hits.

Of course, it was always that way anyway, a Motown chartbuster in a parallel universe. I tried not to do too much direct comparison but they’ve scarcely changed the arrangement at all. It’s slightly frustrating they didn’t pursue this approach just a little further, taking the songs as standards and being willing to push them a little bit. While not a retro exercise there’s little noticeable modernity on the record, you believe it as a newly unearthed, unreleased project crawling out of a dusty closet in the Memphis studio where it has lain forgotten since the 70’s. People would go mad for that. Think what the Daptone people could do with this, what these numbers could have gained from some tight, bright horn arrangements.

With a third of the selections coming from ‘Clear Spot‘ it also seems a missed opportunity to hear what Hendryx might have made out of ‘Nowadays A Woman’s Gotta Hit A Man’, but maybe next time. So, while there’s a strong impulse to shorten the distance between Capt. Beefheart and the mainstream, there’s a counter balancing need not to erase the weirdness. Strangely these are the most troublesome moments here because while it’s nice to hear Lucas tear it up on ‘Suction Prints’ or Hendryx declaim ‘Big Joan Sets Up’ over a careening maelstrom they undercut the prevailing mood. More importantly the limitless freedoms and possibilities suggested by the material look uncomfortable under the museum glass and hot lights of the perfectly recreated arrangements.

Therein lies the problem, too much reverence for the source. Take a look at the cover of this thing, an unimaginative snap of the two of them and a blandly descriptive title. Likewise the readings within fail to surprise you in the way listening to actual Captain Beefheart records does, you long for some of that free jazz volatility to come in and push things around a bit, or a full blooded recasting of some of the songs as blues or funk tunes and exploration of the avenues that opens up. Beefheart’s music is electric with possibility, the danger in trying to pull him into the canon of American song is you could end up with terrible, dull, blues bar renditions of ‘When It Blows Its Stacks’ or a kitschy lounge ballad that used to be ‘My Head Is My Only House’. The people involved here are far too smart for that but they also fail to take what has been handed to them and run with it. It can be done though, their take on ‘Sure ‘Nuff ’n Yes I Do’ lacks the bite and menace of the original and compensates slightly by bringing in some barreling New Orleans piano, which is a nice touch.

A few years ago, for the Lawless soundtrack, Nick Cave managed to get bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley to record an a cappella version of the song and in its minute and a half it illuminates Beefheart’s place in the great tapestry of American music in a way this record never quite manages to. They end on the bright Caribbean feel of ‘Tropical Hot Dog Night’ during which Hendryx recites “I’m playing this music so that the young girls will come out and meet the monster tonight” and tragically you just don’t believe a word of it. No young girls are paying attention here, there’s no monster hiding around in the cupboard and the words slide out flat like a curious formation from a dream. We’re playing this music so that the old men will come out and stroke their beards tonight.

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