A fresh bootleg from the Doc At the Radar Station tour suggests that this particular roster of the Magic Band might’ve been the best batch yet.
BY FRED MILLS
Does the world need a new Captain Beefheart bootleg? Sure ‘nuff ‘n yes we do! Granted, starting in the mid/late ‘90s a veritable flood of Don Van V CD boots started appearing, with the tour for the Doc At the Radar Station—from which the new Live From Harpo’s 1980 hails—in particular being well-represented. Over at the Beef-centric “Electricity” site you can check out a list of official and, er, nonofficial releases that have come out over the years.) But in general, Beefheart fans have been under-served over the years in comparison to other heavily booted artists like Springsteen, Dylan, Neil Young and even Frank Zappa. So pretty much any fresh Beefheart arrival is reason to cheer.
Gonzo Multimedia’s Harpo’s, an audience-sourced recording newly unearthed, perhaps) from the Detroit club of the same name on December 11, 1980, inevitably begs to be compared to a 2000 Rattlesnake label release, the now-rare Live Paradiso, Amsterdam, Nov. 1 1980, and the is-it-legit-or-not Merseytrout (Rotter’s Club, Liverpool, 10/29/80) that the Milksafe/Ozit-Morpheus gang dropped around the same time. Both of those, frankly, beat Harpo’s in terms of sound quality. Live Paradiso in particular has a crispness in the high end and a relatively smooth bottom, along with extremely prominent vocals and decent instrument separation; it’s known that Paradiso show was taped for broadcast over the radio, and Rattlesnake reportedly got their hands on the original tapes (or at least a very low generation copy), ultimately producing the best quality version of an oft-booted show. Meanwhile, Merseytrout is a good audience recording that appears to have undergone some moderate remixing and equalizing to correct any shortcomings; as such, it’s the better product than Harpo’s, sonically. And all three shows have very similar setlists, so in that regard Harpo’s, which has a somewhat muffled and distant sound, is the least essential of the batch.
But really, 1980 represents the best batch yet in terms of dynamic and, yes, I’ll dare to utter the term, professional playing. (The relative wealth of Doc-era live recordings, as viewed at the “Electricity” site, may bolster that assumption, in fact.) Beef sounds uncannily loose yet confident, barking and growling and hissing (wait’ll you hear “Hothead”) while the musicians plunge headlong into the fray. From the stutter-step boogie of “Ashtray Heart” and the angular, post-punk grooves of “A Carrot is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond” to the spazz explosion of “My Human Gets Me Blues” and the psychedelic melange of setcloser “Big Eyed Beans from Venus” this Magic Band definitely weaves magic. Beefheart was abetted on the tour by one of his strongest Magic Bands ever, in fact (some fans maintain is was the strongest by far), so if you have a hankering to hear the interactions of Eric Drew Feldman, Robert Williams, Moris Tepper, Jeff White and Richard Snyder (all but White are pictured in the photo at the top of the page), this one’s for you, bubba. Point of fact, if you are a live recording aficionado, you already understand how sonic deficiencies tend to dissipate somewhat as a show progresses; you get used to the sound after a few minutes and, if it’s a hot performance, you get caught up in it.
Some very nice liner notes by Jon Downes and pleasing sleeve artwork that presumably adapts (or at least references) original posters for the Detroit show round things out. So I would still recommend the purchase. It’s not for newcomers to the Beef experience, but for longtime fans, it’s definitely a gift.