It’s pretty audacious to record an album of Captain Beefheart’s music, but apparently guitarist Gary Lucas is that kind of guy. He comes by it honestly, though. He played in a late incarnation of Beefheart’s Magic Band in the 1980s, and ever since then (in addition to a multitude of other music ventures including writing songs with Jeff Buckley), he has worked to keep the Beefheart flame alive.
Lucas has advocated for and played Beefheart’s music with ensembles large and small, including his own free jazz band Fast and Bulbous. He has assembled a smaller group of like-minded and similarly talented players that’s called The World of Captain Beefheart to record a short but intense tribute album – which is also kind of called The World of Captain Beefheart. I know, it’s confusing.
Nona Hendryx, a cousin of Jimi Hendrix and founding member of the disco-soul group Labelle, might seem an odd choice to handle the vocal duties on a Beefheart tribute disc, but against all odds, it works.
Captain Beefheart, in case you need some background, was Don Van Vliet, a musical and artistic savant whose recording career spanned several eras, from 1964 to 1982 and ranged from straight blues, soul and R&B to avant-garde, free jazz, art rock … what have you. He was never very popular with the public (that could be an understatement) but many of his albums were critically acclaimed. His best known recordings are probably his first Safe as Milk and 1969’s Trout Mask Replica, which is on nearly everybody’s list of the greatest recordings of all time – and certainly ranked with the likes of The Velvet Underground and Nico as among the most influential records in terms of other musicians. But Beefheart and the Magic Band released something like a dozen records over nearly 20 years.
The World of Captain Beefheart has a couple of good choices from Trout Mask Replica: the bluesy, greasy, slide-guitar-heavy “Sugar ‘N Spikes” and the totally out-there tale of fat-shaming, “When Big Joan Sets Up.” Hang in there for the three-way instrumental duel of piano, organ and guitar.
The disc opens and closes with a couple of winners, both of which really highlight Hendryx’s ability to interpret some of the weirder Beefheart material. The opener “Sun Zoom Spark” (from 1972’s Clear Spot) recalls Trout Mask in its lyrical non-sequiturs, but musically would fit right in with early hard rock or proto-heavy metal.
And the closer “Tropical Hot Dog Night” from 1976’s Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) could be Jimmy Buffet on PCP, singing about “two flamingos in a fruit fight.”
Like his friend and sometimes-producer Frank Zappa, Van Vliet loved the blues and R&B. Lovely soul ballads like “I’m Glad” and “Too Much Time” don’t really seem to fit on this album, but Hendryx knocks them out of the park vocally. The strenuous soul numbers “My Head Is My Only House” and “Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles” fit better; what a couple of songs! Both are off of Clear Spot. You might remember “Blue Million Miles” from the soundtrack to The Big Lebowski.
My favorites are the electric boogie of “Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do” from *Safe as Milk*, “The Smithsonian Institute Blues” (Lick My Decals Off, Baby) and the dazzling instrumental “Suction Prints” from Bat Chain Puller.
I’m not too crazy about the production on most of these numbers, which sounds a bit like trebly ’80s pop to my ears. Your mileage may vary, but, seriously, check it out. It’s great to hear these reverent but not by-the-numbers covers of Captain Beefheart tunes. With appropriately garish cover art, and nice liner notes by Lucas and Ed Ward, who you’ll hear reviewing rock music on NPR’s “Fresh Air.”
(Knitting Factory, 2017)