Monday, 28 September 2009

Acoustic Ladyland

I don't have time to do a full review right now but nevertheless have the urge to mention seeing the excellent four-piece ensemble which is 'Acoustic Ladyland'. I've seen Seb Rochford, the drummer, in a number of incarnations, e.g. supporting Julia Biel in F-IRE Collective and with Joanna MacGregor in her role as conductor of a performance of Moondog material. Somehow I've managed to miss Polar Bear a few times. Rochford is an exceptionally good drummer and fascinating to watch. He makes it all look so effortless as he sits bolt upright behind the kit, big hair and all.

The band's sound is driven by the astonishing, punkish on-beat bass playing of Ruth Goller and they are fronted by Pete Wareham on sax. I do not know the name of the guitarist.

Ruth Goller is amazing. Her slight stature and impish presence are at odds with the big, big sound she makes - sometimes chording, at all times in total unison with Rochford's faultless subtlety.

Here's a link to the 'Skinny Grin' single 'Cuts and Lies':

though the new album, 'Living with a Tiger' has different personnel and is the focus of the present tour. Here's a link to something resembling the current band (minus guitarist) playing the title track. It gives an idea of the power of Ruth Goller's driving bass:

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Don Van Vliet AKA Captain Beefheart

I just spent an evening cruising YouTube and watching old footage of one of my all-time music heroes, Captain Beefheart. What a great resource! There is some astonishing material there, including a 60 minute documentary (broken down into 10 minute slices) made by John Peel and filmed by Anton Corbijn, which gives a good snapshot of his life and work. (

Don Van Vliet never went to school. His parents left him to his own devices: mainly sculpting in his bedroom. At 13, he was offered a chance to go and study the art in Europe (more detail on the Letterman interviews), but his parents swiftly took off to the Mojave desert, so that put paid to that and I am left speculating on their motives. No doubt it is detailed somewhere.

In the Peel documentary, Frank Zappa describes how, as teenagers, he and Don hung out listening
to Blues and R&B records most days. A leap forward takes us to the time of the band's first recording and clashes between the respective missions of Beefheart and the record producers. Ry Cooder, who was drafted in to 'rationalise' the first album, 'Safe as Milk', takes up the story, describing Beefheart's tyrannical rule over what went down and Cooder's own hasty departure after the album was cut and the Captain started developing panic attacks, culminating in his abandoning stage at a pre-Monterey gig.

Here's a link to that early 'Magic Band' playing 'Sure 'nuff 'n' Yes I Do':

The transition from a compromised commercial project, by way of the psychedelic wonders of 'Strictly Personal' and the live 'Mirror Man', to the masterpiece which is 'Trout Mask Replica' is elided in the documentary, for the main reason, I suspect, that the latter album and the astonishing history of its making is worthy of some serious attention. But 'Strictly Personal' importantly develops the essential blues base of Van Vliet's music. A blues bias is evident on the first album, which still sounds refreshingly good, but the Captain's capacity to distill elements of the blues, to mix them contrapuntally and to reconstitute a hybrid and original modification is evident throughout the later psychedelic period. The debt to Howlin' Wolf is importantly recognised. Van Vliet's 'system' finds its best expression however in Trout Mask, as we once lovingly called it. Fellow listeners would even quote segments of the 'interludes' by way of greeting.

'What do you run on Rocket?'
'Say Beans'
'I run on beans. Laser beans'


'Fast and bulbous'
'That's right, The Mascara Snake. Bulbous, also Tapered.'

As Matt Groening admits on the doc, the first time you play the record, it can be hugely disappointing and hard to get through; it really needs to be heard a number of times in order for the ear, the brain and its auditory illuminations to accrete sufficiently to appreciate the subtlety. Though perhaps this is the way we 'colonise' music. Beefheart speaks elsewhere of his mission as breaking out of the brain-numbing effects of the habitual 4:4 rhythms which surround us. Astonishingly however, occasionally the separate parts played by the band come together with grand and completely novel effect. In this respect, one might consider Steve Reich's project. The method is described very well by Gary Lucas, guitarist during the much later 'Doc at the Radar Station' period, here:

The matter of the making of Trout Mask Replica, an apocryphal tale in which the band members were holed up on meagre rations and not allowed to leave the house for 8 months by their Bandmeister, is fleshed out within the documentary. Never before (or after?) had such an experiment in the production of avant garde music taken place. When the band emerged, they headed to Frank Zappa's studio and cut the whole double album in 4 1/2 hours. Here's a link to a live performance of two tracks,'She's Too Much for my Mirror' and 'Human Gets me Blues', which elsewhere is referred to as 'Belgium, 1969':
It is evident here how much they had honed their craft; the performance is one of great composure. And if you're hooked, there's more footage of lesser quality, labeled 'Detroit '71' and including material from the 'Decals' album, here:
The follow-up record, 'Lick my Decals off Baby' continues in the mould of 'Trout Mask' but is on the way to the more commercial turn, and the high point of the Captain's success, the aptly named 'The Spotlight Kid'. 'Lick My Decals' is a great record, though very rare, (hence expensive secondhand), on CD. It was issued early in the transition from vinyl to CD, I think, and curiously, never re-issued. A commercial was made by Van Vliet prior to its release in 1970. Here's a link:
This wonderful piece of Dadaist enterprise is 'modern' in the perennial sense; presciently post-modern in fact. The use of an anodyne local radio voice-over in conjunction with the 'way out' imagery is a tactic commonly deployed today in advertising, but in 1970 this was a radical departure which had viewers clamouring to complain. The film is now held by MOMA, NYC.

'The Spotlight Kid' includes two of my 'desert island' tracks: 'Click Clack' and 'Glider'. It's an overall great record. 'Click Clack' is a brilliant example of a pared down hybrid blues. 'I was two tears from you, baby'; 'Maybe you had a girl like that? Always threatening to go down to New Orleans and get herself lost and found.' Glider is a song of beatific vision: 'Into the sun. In my Glider. Up and down through the blues. There's no shadow beside her'. Here's a link to a very good, live version of 'Click Clack' from a gig identified as 'Paris 1972':

And 'I'm gonna Booglarize you, Baby' (The moon was a drip on a dark hood...) is here:

The rarely mentioned follow-up to 'The Spotlight Kid', 'Clear Spot', (the two albums are now coupled on one CD, bearing witness to the Cap's lack of high commercial success) includes some of the band's most sobre music ('Too Much Time'; 'My Head is my Only House Unless it Rains) 'and some of its most anthemic ('Big-eyed Beans from Venus'). It's another astonishing record: at times soulful, at other times utilising the established build techniques developed earlier (late drum entry, syncopation etc.) to more instantly palatable ends than previous recordings. Production values are high and, for Beefheart purists, it may appear to include material which is too commercial. Indeed, subsequent recordings from the reinvention of 'Unconditionally Guaranteed' on left me cold, and, though there are gems among them, including the ultimate 'Ice Cream for Crow', which is generally celebrated as 'a return to form', my intimate knowledge ends here.

As a wordsmith and poet, Van Vliet has flashes of genius. His surrealism is sense-making. His sense-making is surreal. There's a child-like, painterly clarity to his images. His artwork is often part of the album cover design and makes perfect sense in conjunction with the music. Though, the forms stand alone also. There is stylistic consistency and originality to his art. One art marketer claims his work is 'abstract expressionist', another dismisses this as inappropriate labeling because his paintings are not coming out of an urban environment, they are depictions of 'contemporary landscape'. No matter, his retirement from the music industry has allowed him to develop and find recognition for his art. A short film by Anton Corbijn, which includes an opening sequence featuring Don's ma, is interesting and poignant. The majority is here:; the beginning, however, is included here:

More anon....