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Live From Birmingham: Jeff Beck, The Magic Band & Kid Congo Powers

Live From Birmingham: Jeff Beck, The Magic Band & Kid Congo Powers
Martin Longley By

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Jeff Beck
Symphony Hall
May 20, 2014

When guitarist Jeff Beck's quartet took to the stage, they were sounding as brain-pulping as Nine Inch Nails, pushing out an edifice of industrial funk groove. With his freshly-dyed dark locks and black glam matador outfit, Beck didn't exactly look like he was on the brink of becoming a septuagenarian. The youthfulness was in his body language too, and in his sense of sonic adventure. There was the immediate impression that Beck is particularly excited about his current band, and filled with enthusiasm for the current tour. This wasn't a misty glide through past glories. Beck was more concerned with cranking his guitar up and delivering a wall of deftly-sculpted, aggressively distorted, unpredictably structured solos. He's always been a shadowy figure, moving easily between the camps of rock, blues, jazz, funk and pop. This 105 minute set maintained a strong sense of purpose throughout. It's an instinctive vibration that passes through an audience. The time swooped past without any diversions from our full attention. Beck was palpably wired for communication, giving the impression that he was still caught up by improvisation, still changing the content of his solos, night by night.

The music was delivered with a chunky volume level and a sound balance that lent a powerful weight to the proceedings. Beck's axe had a smouldering upfront edge, whilst Rhonda Smith's bass moved from full-bodied funk spread to frayed fuzz thrusting. She contributed vocals to a couple of songs, including "Rollin' & Tumblin,'" one of the encores. Drummer Jonathan Joseph was thundering expansively, favouring one of those massive rock-bombast kits, but still sensitively polyrhythmic at high-punch volume. Second guitarist Nicolas Meier's place was less certain, as his parts often worked as a mushy filler, softly toned-down beside Beck, and often verging on synth-style washing. Presumably this was a deliberate tactic, to contrast with Beck's more serrated edges. Towards the end of the gig, Meier stood to the side, and the band played as a power trio, which made this listener hanker after a more stripped down combo.

Most of the material was Beck's own, but there were a few strategic cover versions interspersed, including "Danny Boy," Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing" and "A Day In The Life," by The Beatles, a tilted version that side-stepped what most acts would choose, apart from The Fall. Not many folks have dared to select this tune for a grapple. Beck exudes a positive attitude, and appears to be a modest, easy-going kinda guy. Did he always pick with his thumb, even in the early years? Nowadays, he's plucking like a bluesman, embellishing with his whammy bar, stepping on his big spread of effects pedals, but not overdoing it: much of the sonic bending was as a result of his own fingering techniques. It's not all trebly contorting, as Beck employs hard riffs as a foundation, often clipped into unexpected structures.

Self-confessed warm-up act Mike Sanchez (he of The Big Town Playboys) played a half-hour solo set, abusing his tiny electric piano, as the blues and rock'n'roll numbers got shorter as he hurtled towards his time-limit, songs compressed into a virtual medley of classics. We could sympathise with his urge to cram in as many favourites as possible, but the set started to sound like a demonstration of his prowess rather than a considered selection of tunes. A touch too much for the short attention-span folks, but tantalising nevertheless, a taster for several of Sanchez's upcoming full-band gigs around the region.

The Magic Band
The Assembly
May 22, 2014

The Assembly lies in Leamington Spa, but that's still less than an hour's train ride away from Birmingham, just to justify its place in this column. This smaller town struggled to draw in a size of crowd deserved by such a stellar crew as The Magic Band, but as the first of two sets progressed, the audience steadily expanded. It was probable that folks were unclear over the start-time, perhaps not realising that these esteemed Captain Beefheart veterans would be playing an extended show, with intermission.

This crew plays so regularly that they've turned the re-creation of the Beefheart oeuvre into a fine art of precision. The music's intricacies are in place, but the players are free to sound unhinged and spontaneous, secure in the knowledge that they usually know where they're going to land. Two of the band members were right there in the early days: sticksman Drumbo and bassist Rockette Morton, commonly known as John French and Mark Boston. Although drumming in days of yore, French eventually took on the absent/retired Don Van Vliet's vocal role, doing an excellent job of capturing the Captain's flighty blues-encrusted yowl. He also plays harmonica, saxophone and occasional guitar, and makes for a compulsively watchable frontman, continually pacing the stage and dramatically emphasising the vocals with expressive gesticulations. His energy, coupled with the compulsory commitment of the instrumentalists, created a resonant electricity that was a constant presence throughout the evening, magnifying as the sets built towards their heights. French frequently took to the drums for the instrumentals, but when he was singing, newer recruit Andrew Niven took his place. The guitarists were Eric Klerks and Denny Walley, the latter mostly known as a Frank Zappa sideman, playing on the Bongo Fury live album that FZ made with Beefheart in 1975, and subsequently joining Van Vliet for the Magic Band's Bat Chain Puller sessions.

Yes, this combo was assisted monumentally by the repertoire, and its charged familiarity, but they delivered interpretations that would have been completely suited to the imagined presence of the Captain himself. They rocked: intricately, earthily, scorchingly, cerebrally, frighteningly, and perhaps surprisingly funkily. The set-list was impeccable, with the Walley/Klerks twinned slide guitars spotlit gloriously on "Circumstances," "Sun Zoom Spark," "Clear Spot" and "Nowadays A Woman's Gotta Hit A Man." Yes, the 1972 Clear Spot album was probably the biggest source for songs on this evening. A more directly bluesy grind drove early numbers such as "Mirror Man" and "Electricity." Most of the instrumentals were lifted from Trout Mask Replica, prompting a nervy sort of headbanging, fast and bulbous, but "Suction Prints" was a particular riff-complexity stand-out, arriving from nearly a decade later, in the late 1970s. Drumbo picked up the sticks for an instrumental reading of "Ella Guru," and "Pachuco Cadaver" was another tense classic. He made up a guitar trio for "Hothead," one of Beefheart's best 'later period' songs.

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