Don Van Vliet (AKA Captain Beefheart) was a renowned musician, artist and poet best known for his innovative work with The Magic Band. Fusing blues-rock, psychedelia and avant-garde jazz; his music was lauded by John Peel and has been cited as an influence by everyone from Tom Waits to PJ Harvey. Van Vliet retired from music nearly 30 years ago and passed away in 2010 but left behind a large, unique body of work with a hefty cult following. A reformed Magic Band have been intermittently performing for the last 10 years and recently embarked on a UK tour to satiate the faithful and bring the music to a new generation.
Despite the midweek performance and £20 entry fee, The Duchess was rammed tight with an eclectic, though largely greying crowd as the five-piece took the stage. The current incarnation of the band features three original members and is fronted by John ‘Drumbo’ French – Van Vliet’s musical director and multi-instrumentalist, now turned singer. There has long been speculation about who truly deserves the credit for all of those influential albums but it seemed no grudges were being held, as French leapt on mic and proudly proclaimed “we are The Magic Band and we play the music of Captain Beefheart”.
The band’s proficiency was demonstrated from the outset as they rattled through “My Human Gets Me Blues” and any worries about vocal delivery were quickly put aside. Even with such demanding, often ridiculously timed material (some songs feature each musician playing in different time signatures), the band was incredibly tight. It’s hard to imagine them performing better, even at their peak over 40 years ago. In particular, heavy harmonica driven blues-rock track “Hot Head” and lengthy spoken word piece “Orange Claw Hammer” stood out as highlights.
Interspersed with the avant-garde material were a few more traditional stomping blues numbers from early on in Beefheart’s career. Including his first hit, a cover of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy” from before, as French puts it, “things got a little out-there“.
About half way through the set, they took a 15 minute break which was spent mingling with the crowd and talking to groups of fans which excitedly gathered around them. What was striking about this and the whole attitude of the show was something rarely seen with old reunited bands – this wasn’t about making a big comeback or even just topping up the retirement fund, it seemed to be for the pure joy of playing music that was so important to them and to the adoring crowd.
Returning to the stage, French took over drum duties and began with an impressive solo as each member appeared and they played a series of instrumental pieces from defining 1969 album ‘Trout Mask Replica’. A band of virtuosos, each member got an extended solo at some point and they often swapped instruments; during one song the frontman managed to play drums, guitar, soprano sax and two harmonicas as well as singing.
With a set time approaching two hours and an enthralling performance from all of them, it’s surely the best thing to have graced The Duchess of late. Although the inaccessibility of their music will always keep them out of the mainstream, they are highly revered by many and rightly so. Anyone lucky enough to catch a live show would agree, The Magic Band certainly live up to their name.By Karl Bos