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

Martin Longley By

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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.

We have to be extremely grateful to this band for continuing to offer the essential Beefheart repertoire at a level that the man himself would have appreciated, even if he might have said that he didn't..! Rock'n'roll has still not reached this level of Van Vliet advancement, over four decades down the line.

Kid Congo & The Pink Monkey Birds
The Hare & Hounds
May 25, 2014

A holiday weekend led to a packed room, upstairs at The Hare & Hounds pub in the Birmingham suburb of Kings Heath, and a later-than-usual gig for a Sunday night. Preceding combos Table Scraps and Black Mekon successfully fired up the crowd with some suitably garage-rockin' extremity, and the djs were spinning an enticing selection of Latin rock'n'roll exotica. Kid Congo Powers established his reputation as a guitarist for The Gun Club and The Cramps, two of America's finest diseased-rockaboogie purveyors. During the 1980s, he alternated between those two bands, then joined Nick Cave's Bad Seeds. For the last decade or more, the Kid has been concentrating on being a bandleader.

The Pink Monkey Birds leapt into action, raw and loud, revelling in an exceptional mix that kept all the guitars equal in their distorto-whanging whammage. Powers has the body language of a funkster, but the tunes managed to ram garage rock and psychedelic pop together, shaping noise and hooky melodies into a demon extremity. Catching him previously, the set-list has mostly been made up of original numbers, but early on, the Kid threw in "Ghost On The Highway" and "Garbage Man," two of the most representative songs from the Cramps and Gun Club catalogue, both given in lovingly rucked-up incarnations. Powers looked casual, with he and his lead guitarist garbed in matching Kid Congo tour jackets, but his core was coiled, the solo trade-offs becoming increasingly deranged as the gig progressed, with even his bassist picking up a guitar at one stage, making a threesome wall of riffage. Short songs, compressed power and loose-limbed groove a-go-go!

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