Fast 'n' Bulbous Waxed Oop Cuneiform
Many people would agree with alto saxophonist Phillip Johnston's assertion that Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) was one of the twentieth century's very greatest composers. He was also one of its key innovators, conceptualists, singers and poets. When an artist is an extreme fan of another artist, they sometimes form tribute bands. If they inhabit the rock 'n' roll universe, this can be viewed as a tawdry endeavor. In classical and jazz quarters, such activities become known as "interpretations," perceived as a less tarnished activity.
Another approach to tributes is to feature an actual, surviving sideman of the artist under the spotlight. So, guitarist Gary Lucas collaborated with Johnston and a posse of acrobatic horn gentlemen to form Fast 'N' Bulbous in 2001, releasing their Pork Chop Blue Around The Rind (Cuneiform) album in 2005. Lucas was one of the last guitarists to work with Beefheart, in the early 1980s, and much of his subsequent career has involved a continuance of the great man's legacy. At first, there were no plans to record a second selection, but following a realization that the group hadn't touched Beefheart's album Lick My Decals Off, Baby (Straight Records, 1970) and the appearance of three fresh arrangements penned by trombonist Joe Fiedler, Johnston felt that the time was ripe for another collection. He was correct.
Lucas opens Waxed Oop with a solo National steel guitar reading of "Sure 'Nuff 'n' Yes I Do," probing the core of Beefheart's avant blues aesthetic. After this, the full band roars in, their horns following the vocal lines created by Beefheart, partly riffing in complex abandon, partly making fearsome solo statements as they winkle out the free jazz tendencies found in much of Beefheart's work. Even though the bias is mostly instrumental, the band tip in a few ensemble chants of key phrases, as "Trust Us" takes on a skewed New Orleans gait.
Johnston penned most of the arrangements, but with three apiece by Fiedler and Lucas, there's a sense of collective energy being expended. Lucas delivers a stinging solo on the slurred blues stomp of "You Know You're A Man," and "Ice Rose" provides the opportunity for a successful voyage around one of the Captain's most involved themes. Lucas gets really raw during the twinned "Click Clack/Ice Cream For Crow" and hits his hottest solo on "The Past Sure Is Tense". The only disappointment is the closing "China Pig," featuring a vocal by English psychedelicist Robyn Hitchcock. This final track was recorded live as part of a Beefheart tribute night at New York's Knitting Factory.
A CD-release gig was booked at Le Poisson Rouge in March 2009, but then disaster struck. Lucas slipped on ice and broke his elbow in several places, enforcing an absence from performance of several months. The announcement of his mishap dealt a full body blow, although much of the audience didn't seem too disturbed by this news. Suddenly, Pat Irwin (principally known as a Lydia Lunch sideman) was called upon at the eleventh hour and (perhaps unwisely) set about the task of learning Beefheart's intricate parts. Then it was made clear that trombonist Joe Fiedler was also absent, replaced by Jacob Garchik.
Morale had now plummeted severely and grisly fears were realized as the combo visibly (though valiantly) struggled with the new configuration. Irwin is more Duane Eddy than Zoot Horn Rollo, or at best more Dick Dale than Gary Lucas, inserting quite a few long twangs when a clipped acidic frazzle is required. He couldn't help it, at such short notice, but much of the music's rhythmic angularity was sadly absent, cues were missed and even some of the horn entrances were fluffed. There were still some vigorous saxophone solos from Johnston and the material helped itself out for much of the time, but overall there was a distinct sense of uncertainty and a frustrating lack of momentum.
Tracks: Sure 'Nuff 'n' Yes I Do; Trust Us; Smithsonian Institute Blues; Dropout Boogie; You Know You're A Man; Well; Ice Rose; Click Clack/Ice Cream For Crow; Woe-Is-Uh-Me-Bop; The Blimp; The Past Sure Is Tense; Blabber'n'Smoke; China Pig.
Personnel: Gary Lucas: guitar; Phillip Johnston: alto saxophone; Rob Henke: trumpet; Joe Fiedler: trombone; Dave Sewelson: baritone saxophone; Jesse Krakow: bass; Richard Dworkin: drums; Robyn Hitchcock: guest vocal.
Sure 'Nuff'n'Yes I Do; Trust Us; Smithsonian Institute Blues; Dropout Boogie; You Know You're A Man; Well; Ice Rose; Click Clack/Ice Cream For Crow; Woe-Is-Uh-Me-Bop; The Blimp; The Past Sure Is Tense; Blabber'n'Smoke; China Pig.
Gary Lucas: guitar; Phillip Johnston: alto saxophone; Rob Henke: trumpet; Joe Fiedler: trombone; Dave Sewelson: baritone saxophone; Jesse Krakow: bass; Richard Dworkin: drums; Robyn Hitchcock: guest vocal.