erasing clouds

Live Review: The Magic Band/Fire Engines @ The Arches, Glasgow, Scotland, 05/07/04

by anna battista

Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart once compared his music to the "speed and emotion" of works by artist Franz Kline. Taking inspiration from that remark, I always compared the Nectarine No.9's music to Francis Bacon's chaotic world. In Beefheart's universe as in the Nectarine No.9's, music seems to be cut out of shapes rather than words. (Besides, in my humble opinion, the Nectarine No.9 are the only band able to cover a) Captain Beefheart, b) Sun Ra, but this is another story...) It is hence very apt for the first incarnation of the NN.9, the Fire Engines, to open tonight for Beefheart's Magic Band.

When I arrive at the venue, the Fire Engines have already started their set, but I still manage to get a glimpse of Davy Henderson wearing a dress and to hear a few tracks. They are explosively raw, angry and spiky as ever, and, while listening to them, you realise that they owe to Captain Beefheart in terms of sound structure, riffs and distorted vocals. Unfortunately, their set is quite short and soon the stage is vacated to welcome The Magic Band.

Beefheart's band reunited last year and recently released for the joy of their fans a live DVD. Tonight, The Magic Band's aficionados, that is mostly aged men looking like a crossover between Richard Brautigan and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, have gathered here to see their heroes John French on drums, vocals and harmonica, Gary Lucas on guitar, Denny Walley on guitar, Mark Boston on bass and Michael Traylor on drums.

John French arrives wrapped up in a white coat and wearing a white hat and with a towel adorning his shoulders. He tells us he's just found the towel in the dressing rooms, then pauses for effect, unfolds it and reveals us the discoloured face of Donald Duck. We laugh and clap at the fading image, almost a hallucination from an acid dream evoking childhood, then the music starts, a blend of blues, rock, acid, jazz, a jigsaw puzzle of rhythms documenting deranged years gone by.

While the band plays hits such as "Diddy Wah Diddy", "The Smithsonian Institute Blues", "Circumstances" and "Nowadays A Woman's Got To Hit A Man", French - who seems to be very surprised by this enthusiastic Glasgow's audience - grumbles rather than sings, his voice, sinister and almost primal, scarily resembles Beefheart's trademark growl. A few instrumentals follow, among them "Alice In Blunderland" and "Evening Bell", the latter with a triumphing Gary Lucas on guitar.

Towards the end of the gig, John French remembers the genius who wrote the lyrics of the songs they played tonight, Captain Beefheart, and instantly a roar rises from the adoring crowd. This is our way to say thanks to Beefheart and to his mighty Magic Band.

Issue 25, July 2004

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Pics by Anna Battista.