Thursday, December 24, 2020

Live Vinyl: Captain Beefheart Kansas City 1974


[review by Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen]

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band: Live at Cowtown Ballroom, Kansas City, 22 April 1974 (Radio Looploop RLL 034)


Venue: As titled


Sound Quality: Very good quality FM broadcast (KUDL), decent stereo mix


Cover: Familiar shot that looks to be from the same photo sessions that produced the cover for the official Grow Fins – Rarities 1965-1972 album


Tracklist: (side a) Mirror Man/ Upon the My-O-My/ Full Moon Hot Sun/ Keep on Rubbing/ Be Your Dog (side b) Crazy Little Things/ Sugar Bowl/ This Is The Day/ Sweet Georgia Brown/ Abba Zaba/ Peaches


Comments: The first thing most people think of when they think of Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet), if they think of him at all, is Trout Mask Replica, his 1969 album that critics frequently call a masterpiece and one that became something of a talisman to alternative rockers in the 1990s (whether they actually listened to it or not). But that album's singular sound is an outlier in the Beefheart catalog, emphasizing polytonal non-conventional sounds in a way that the rest of his oeuvre doesn't. That's not to say Beefheart was ever conventional, but most of his work is considerably more accessible than the record most frequently hailed as the pinnacle of his career.


But musical throughlines—Delta blues, Howlin' Wolf, and free jazz—are the same no matter how "outside" Beefheart got, and Van Vliet was a singular artist. After brief stints with A&M Records and Buddah, he signed with his friend Frank Zappa's Straight Records to produce his most experimental work. By the time of this recording, his avant-garde tendencies took a back seat to the blues (he'd embrace them again later in the decade), but the music is every bit as powerful (though Beefheart purists maintain the music represented here lacks the challenging rhythms and improvisation that made Beefheart, well, Beefheart).


In addition to being a musical iconoclast, Van Vliet was, by almost all accounts, an asshole. His original Magic Band were either fired or quit just before the 1974 tour, and the band on this recording became known among fans as the "Tragic Band." Live at Cowtown Ballroom is at least the third release of this show, and it not only truncates the 12-song performance to 11, it also rearranges the setlist, according to the "Captain Beefheart Radar Station" blog. So, while most of the songs here are from the Unconditionally Guaranteed sessions, none of the musicians who recorded that album appear here. No Zoot Horn Rollo or Alex St. Clair, though what Dean Smith and Fuzzy Fuscaldo might lack in imagination they make up for in power. (This, of course, also means that the photos on the album cover do not reflect the personnel that actually play on the album inside.)


It's fascinating to hear Beefheart push against the confines of a more conventional band with his usual squawks and howls on "Be Your Dog," and blow his harmonica while saxophonist Del Simmons (who did play on the Unconditionally Guaranteed album) skronks his way through "Full Moon Hot Sun." "Crazy Little Thing," from 1972's Clear Spot, might be the only song in Beefheart's catalog that would pass unnoticed on classic rock radio, with an utterly conventional guitar solo and a choogling groove.


"This is the Day," the closest thing that Beefheart ever came to a traditional love song, is an unexpected highlight, even as you can hear Van Vliet laugh as he delivers some of the lines, getting a kick out of his own joke (rock's premier experimenter singing lines like "This is the day that love chose to play/ one minute here, one minute there"). The version of "Sweet Georgia Brown," however, is forgettable.


Only on "Abba Zaba," from Beefheart's 1967 debut Safe as Milk is there a sense of anything rhythmically or harmonically outside of blues-rock tropes. Those aforementioned Beefheart purists might reject this band and this era outright, but they're missing the point. Though at times the music sounds like The Rolling Stones or Cream, Van Vliet uses his vocals and harmonica to subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) subvert cliches at every turn.


Grade: B

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