A Strikingly Original Homage – “The World of Captain Beefheart” from Nona Hendryx & Gary Lucas

Nona Hendryx & Gary Lucas
The World of Captain Beefheart
Knitting Factory Records

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There’s a monster to climb here, an ocean to swim. A vast and intensely differentiated field to wade our way through, waist-high with spiky grasses waving in sinuous anti-tandem, the entire prospect filled with thrilling un-expectation. Ain’t no way to make it over to the other end with our senses intact beyond just hitting ‘play’ and letting this work pull us by the scruffs of our adventurous necks, relinquishing control and all hesitation and putting our trust in the good guidance of the Captain’s never-wavering shadow, as shaped and shepherded here by one-time Labelle member/long-keen Van Vliet aficionado Nona Hendryx and final Magic Band whizzbang guitarist Gary Lucas, backed with wicked simpatico precision by Fast’n’Bulbous‘s rhythm section – bassist Jesse Krakow, Richard Dworkin on drums – and Gods and Monsters keyboard marvel Jordan Shapiro. A delight, a blast, a challenge and a trip, The World of Captain Beefheart strikes with the same laser-sharp expressionism as its source material but with an added layer of invincible soul, the pair with their ensemble in tow creating homage that’s liberating and, paradoxically, strikingly original.

So, with Beefheart, of course, we’re talking blues but, in a way, not talking blues. Which is to say we’re talking transmogrified blues, blues turned inside out and given avant-jazz spasm treatments, blues rocked sideways down a dusty road and rolling up covered in grit and seventeen coatings of rough-hewn wit and wisdom. That’s the common line, anyway, precisely because it’s the predominant takeaway when skimming the man’s catalog and is in turn the core innovative gist upon which rests the legend. Don Glen Vliet’s gift for upending was and still is essential to his reputation. Blues pre-Captain was too often viewed by music enthusiasts – well-known to be a parochial bunch – as a vaunted and fairly traditional medium where power was frequently gauged by the level of emotional primitivism on display, the more feral the downtroddenness the better. But just as that view undersells the form’s nearly infinite nuances, so too is it a mistake to understand the Beefheart legacy purely as one of a prolonged (albeit brilliant) attempt at fearless, exquisite blues-ruining. Yes, he showed, with uncommon force and aptitude, what was possible inside that idiom, and that accomplishment rightly deserves the greatest share of laurels, but because of it we tend to overlook his pop proclivities, a significant oversight considering the Magic Band’s very first stab at recognition, in 1966, was a cover of “Diddy Wah Diddy” produced by future Bread-head David Gates.

 

Even as Beefheart delved ever deeper into the devil’s thicket of gymnastic, gravity-defying time signatures, twisted ganglia of guitar lines, and elliptical Dadaist narratives that dwarfed the efforts of the era’s most psychedelicized pseudo-poets, the Captain was always comfortable in pop’s – or at least the-idea-of-pop’s – company, expressing with unblinkered conviction that what was being created under the Magic Band banner should be popular, refuting the reflexively lazy notion that the songs he built were purposely dense and inaccessible. Hence the attempt, in 1974’s Bluejeans and Moonbeams, at outright commercial viability (it – no surprise – tanked, the transparency of its contrivance confusing everyone in its path). And while The World of… isn’t shy in the least about tackling the more ornery corners of the ouevre – it opens with Clear Spot‘s “Sun Zoom Spark,” jumpy and punchy as a just-roped bronc, then further along visits the likes of the racing and manic “Suction Prints,” “When Big Joan Sets Up”‘s amphetamined jumble and the swamp engine churn of “When It Blows It Stacks” – it also takes care to unpack the gentler dimensions lurking with twinkles of amusement and affection in this monumental artist’s back channels.

 

Though that balancing act is most obviously accomplished by deciding to include Safe As Milk‘s beguilingly lovely, Philly soul-indebted “I’m Glad,” it’s the inclusion as well of other, ostensibly less self-evident tracks that help further illustrate Beeheart’s more clement side – the yearning hope and poignancy of “My Mind is My Only House Unless it Rains,” “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles,” filled with love, awe and gratitude, the dreamer’s lament “Too Much Time.” Those particular cuts are all especially well-served by Ms Hendryx’s soul-devotional vocal treatments – she inhabits these songs with a clear and true acolyte’s respect, owning them for the time she holds them – but in truth that aspect applies album-wide.

Not in any way papering over the sandpapery textures of the originals but rather discreetly polishing the grit with an innate gloss, iconic pieces like the Howlin’ Wolf-indebted “Sure ‘Nuff ‘n Yes I Can” (which just rhythmically pops here, by the way), “The Smithsonian Institute Blues (or The Big Dig),” drunk with crazy adroit vibes, its guitaring gutteral, and the nimble prog-blues jingle “Sugar ‘n Spikes,” Lucas in typically astute breathless form, are leant an inevitably approachable quality while retaining with utmost integrity the gristle and bones on which the things were grown. The snake-ish intricacies, the somersaulting Escherism, the lightning-coiled tension and the lyrics with their quixotic humor and post-Beat imagery are, not to worry, faithfully present and accounted for, jamming and falling all over themselves with a desert-dwelling trickster’s panache.

Alive with a crackling essentiality, The World of Captain Beefheart reflects its inspiration like a distilled funhouse mirror image, every bit as playfully distorted even as its contours shimmer with an ever-so-smoother, funkier groove. Given the care given, however, and the caliber – and investment – of those involved, the results, when held next to, are just as electric, just as necessary, and, ultimately, just as timeless.

[Nail down your copy of The World of Captain Beefheart here]