BY FRED MILLS
When Captain Beefheart passed away in 2010 he left a big ol’ hole in our collective ashtray heart. In death, however, he’s been even more prolific than in life, with scores of posthumous archival releases and reissues to keep us righteously booglarized. Ergo, the quartet at hand, of which one title is an official, major label-sanctioned offering, a pair of dubious, if well-meaning, legitimacy, and another an outright bootleg. We wouldn’t have it any other way, eh?
Rhino’s Sun Zoom Spark: 1970 to 1972 is a 4LP or 4CD box set covering, per the titular dateline, Lick My Decals Off, Baby, The Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot, along with a bonus LP, Out-takes, containing 46 minutes’ worth of unreleased material from Kid and Clear Spot sessions. Those three original Warner Bros.-family (e.g., the Straight and Reprise imprints) albums made a convincing case for Beefheart having become relatively more “accessible” in his post-Trout Mask Replica period—that one, of course, despite its rightful legendariness, was distinctively uneasy listening to some fans’ ears. Decals’ short, sharp, spastic shocks of dada-eque rock are clearly descended from Trout, but more concise (“Woe-Is-uh-Me-Bop,” for example, is two minutes’ worth of dissonant proto-punk), while Kid has longer tunes and a distinctively bluesy, even swampy vibe. Not that, ahem, marimbas are typically what come to mind when you think “swampy.” Clear Spot emerges as the essential piece of the trio, loaded with acknowledged classics like “Big Eyed Beans from Venus,” “Sun Zoom Spark” and the positively swingin’ “Low Yo Yo Stuff.” Out-takes, featuring rehearsals and alternate takes from TSK and CS sessions, isn’t throwaway stuff, either; fans will enjoy both making A-B comparisons and noting how early versions of songs evolved into subsequently released tracks.
Packaged in a 12”x12” box containing accurate reproductions of the original LP sleeves—Clear Spot is also housed in clear plastic, just like the ’72 LP, although for some reason the fold-out lyric poster, detailing both album and non album texts, for Decals is not included—Sun Zoom Spark is a loving tribute to a modern American master. To that end, both the box’s cover art and the outtakes album display original Van Vliet paintings from 1970.
Meanwhile, Britain’s Gonzo Multimedia releases its latest Beefheart finds. In temporal terms, Somewhere Over Vancouver: Live From Vancouver 1973, recorded 3/3/73 at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom, segues nicely from the Rhino box as it features a Magic Band made up of veterans from those three studio albums performing a set of loonily inspired tunes. “Low Yo-Yo Stuff” in particular swings with a trapeze artist’s agility. The CD is probably for completists, only, as the sound quality is distant and, in places, downright muffled. Collectors used to swapping Beefheart tapes back in the day probably won’t be unhappy, but it’s definitely not a starting point for fans just discovering the extant pleasures of the artist live.
Meanwhile, considerably better is Gonzo’s Somewhere Over Paris: Live From Paris 1977 is a 2CD 11/19/77 concert from Le Nouvel Hippodrome in Paris featuring a then-new Magic Band lineup of relative youthful (though in no way novice) musicians: Eric Drew Feldman on bass and keys, Moris Teper and Denny Walley on guitars and Robert Williams on drums, plus harp-man Harry Duncan pitching in whenever the good Cap’n deemed it was time for a few righteous blats that his sax could not provide. This European appearance which heralded the somewhat convoluted recording and eventual release of 1978’s Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), found Beefheart in remarkably good form — and spirits, too, for as Gonzo Multimedia reports in its press materials provided with the package, he enthused wholeheartedly about his Magic-ians:
“This band is so good – the best I have ever had! They play with a smile. They really breathe up there when they are playing. After all this time I have finally found the band I’m looking for. It’s amazing! Playing with this group is like going for a walk: they are so happy whey they play… The gig we played in pParis was monstrous. It was three days ago but I haven’t slept since!
This group, I tell you, I couldn’t believe that there were such nice people still around on this earth. True, they are playing what I have written, but they really are playing. This band is moving so fast that very soon I won’t have to tell them anything.”
High praise, but he’s right – it’s a phenomenal performance, with so many Beefheart faves performed over the course of the two-hour show—from “Low Yo Yo Stuff,” “The Blimp,” “Grow Fins,” “Sun Zoom Spark” and “I Wanna Find a Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have to Go” to “Big Eyed Beans from Venus,” “China Pig,” “Pachuco Cadaver,” “China Pig” and “A Carrot Is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond”—that it’s practically an extended tutorial in everything you ever wanted to know about the man. Blues, rock, jazz fusion, dadaesque hollers and, er, blooze all get airings, with stop-on-a-dime twists ‘n’ turns, accompanied by one man’s signature bleat, howl and bawl.
The superior-sounding Live From Paris 1977 is, sonically speaking, still somewhat on the lean end of the spectrum; if the label’s previous release Somewhere Over Detroit: Live From Harpos 1988 rated, roughly, a “7” out of “10” on the sound quality scale, this one is no more than a “5”. That’s kind of par for the course when you’re talking live Beefheart titles; there’s never really been a “definitive” concert representation of the man, which is a curious distinction when you consider there are a lot of tapes – and at least a plethora of bootlegs – in circulation. Rhino Handmade took a stab at it a number of years back with their My Father’s Place release, and Gonzo is certainly doing its best to keep fans and collectors supplied with nicely-designed titles. (Worth noting: the Paris show has appeared on at least a couple of bootlegs in the past; Gonzo’s edition if by far the best and the most complete.) But somewhere there must be a trove of professionally-recorded and –mixed Magic Band concerts awaiting a proper excavating, hmmm?
The Lost Broadcasts doesn’t qualify, but it does scratch a necessary itch: it’s part of the recent vinyl bootleg resurgence that’s been steadily ramping up to accompany the official vinyl resurgence. English label Let Them Eat Vinyl, along with distributor Plastic Head, has been helping spark the, er, underground economy with a veritable wave of boot wax, releasing titles (or in some case rebooting earlier boots) by everyone from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds and Patti Smith to Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. The Beefheart title at hand is taken from the audio portion of the DVD of the same name, originally released in 2012 by Gonzo Multimedia. Here’s an excerpt from Gonzo’s product notes for the DVD:
“On 12th April, in the middle of the European leg of the tour Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band stopped off at the Beat Club studios in Bremen to film a session for later transmission. Of the four song sessions filmed that day only one track has ever been broadcast. The band at that time included: Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet), vocals, harp; Rockette Morton (Mark Boston), guitar/bass; Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkleroad), guitar; Orejon (Roy Estrada), bass; Ed Marimba (Art Tripp), drums; Winged Eel Fingerling (Elliot Ingber), guitar.”
Since it’s a professional recording, the sound is very good, if a tad flat in some places. And overall, the performance is interesting and quite solid; you may or may not feel like you need two versions of “Click Clack” and three of “I’m Gonna Booglarize You Baby,” but for both fans and completists, if you don’t already own the DVD version, The Lost Broadcasts seems like a reliable bet. The sleeve art is a sepia-toned black-and-white still from the DVD and it’s also a gatefold sleeve.
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