Adrian Cooper has been unwell

Old reviews that are no longer available online, or from sites that no longer exist. The pen is dead, long live the camera.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Magic Band
the Garage, London

You never expect to get to watch some bands. Sometimes they fall by the wayside before you get the chance to see them in the flesh. Sometimes you just have to accept that it wasn’t meant to be.

When a band splits about twelve years before you had even heard of them, then the chances of ever watching them play are, shall we say, quite remote. Which just makes it all the more astounding that I’m here watching a bunch of old men in varying stages of mid-life crisis, and that’s just the audience. Boom boom.

Bad jokes aside, it is worth taking the time to say that entering the Garage tonight felt like walking into a back issue of Q. The almost exclusively male crowd is easily the wrong side of its forties. Those of them that look like they earn a living appear to do so as accountants or finance directors of small, inconsequential companies. The rest of the crowd look as if they’ve never earned a living in their lives: pitiful little men with the faces of 50 year olds atop the scrawny bodies of malnourished children. Men who can be heard muttering, “think of all the girlfriends who never got Beefheart, who said it was all unlistenable shit, but they’re still going strong today, shows how much they knew about music”.

At this point I’d to draw your attention to the header at the top of this page. The Magic Band. At the Garage. Not at Wembley Arena, Finsbury Park, Brixton Academy, or even the Barbican or the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, (the last two both venues that they played last year). This is the Garage. This is a world tour whose only UK date is a 500 capacity former sweatbox in North London. So let’s not get too carried away about their success. There’s a reason that Don van Vliet once sang ‘My Human Gets Me Blues’, and this may well be it.

Ah, yes. Don van Vliet, the man without whom none of this would be possible. An artist, musician and musical visionary. The man who locked his band in a house for three months while he taught them ‘Trout Mask Replica’. The captain that fled his ship in 1982, before it had even started to sink, so he could run off to live as a hermit in the desert and concentrate on painting.

Also, there’s a problem with the price here. The Magic Band may have become more than just a curiosity again, but at £20 a ticket, they’re still very much a luxury. Which is why the crowd tonight is so ridiculously homogenous. Why would you spend £20 on a ticket for a gig at the Garage, when you could take that money, go to Fopp, or wait for one of the more overpriced high street stores to have one of their countless sales, and buy Beefheart’s best albums for that same sum.

But anyway, 491 words in, and still no mention of the gig. I should get on. The most frustrating thing about all this is that we’ve reached a stage in musical evolution where the Magic Band actually make sense. In a time where free-jazz is no longer mentioned in the same sentence as the bogey man, where Radiohead reach number one with albums of unlistenable wibble and the best busker in London plays guitar like he’s David Pajo, I think that people are ready for the Magic Band.

During a set lifted largely from the ‘Clear Spot’ and ‘Trout Mask Replica’ albums, there are songs that sound as if they could have been released by any of the better post-rock bands in the last few years. ‘On Tomorrow’ wouldn’t sound out of place at a Tortoise gig, while Rockette Morton’s preceding bass solo (yes, I know, a fucking bass solo, but, man, you had to be there) could put Billy Mahonie to shame.

Obviously, on these and other instrumental songs, the absence of Don van Vliet is an irrelevance. Elsewhere, John ‘Drumbo’ French does such a Beefheart impression so convincing, even on the vocal only ‘Orange Claw Hammer’, that anyone not familiar with the history probably wouldn’t have guessed that French was only ever a drummer in the original incarnation of the band.

What is obvious though is that the Magic Band are still capable of knocking out the delta-blues-voodoo-stomp-swamp-rock better than anyone else. They lurch their way from one masterpiece to another, from ‘Circumstances’ to ‘Steal Softly Thru Snow’. Though they do then ruin things slightly with ‘Evening Bell’, a two-minute piece for one guitar that has no obvious rhythm and makes absolutely no bloody sense at all. But then, contrary bastards that they are, they follow this with ‘Electricity’ and ‘The Floppy Boot Stomp’ and everything is peachy again.

In the end, my only complaint is that I’d prefer it if Drumbo didn’t take so much time out to between songs to talk to the crowd (oh, and that they don’t play ‘Ice Cream For Crow’ or ‘Ashtray Heart’, but you can’t have everything). Okay, so he’s being polite and wants to tell people some of the background about the songs, but it would be good to hear this set played Blues Explosion style, with only a howled song-title and the occasional “1, 2, 3, 4” separating each track. Though obviously, the fact that a large number of Magic Band songs are either so syncopated or contain three different time signatures means that they’d be impossible to count in.

But as the band come back on to encore with ‘Brickbats’, any such grumbles are left far behind. The Magic Band still sound mighty and, against a lot of odds, I got to see the evidence up close and personal.

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