Gary Lucas has been a long time fan of the one-of-a-kind mutant rock-jazz-blues of Captain Beefheart. This led to his being part of Beefheart's Magic Band in the '80s and to his revisiting the music after Beefheart's 1985 retirement in various formats including a raucous jazz tribute band, Fast 'n' Bulbous. This time he goes back to the Captain's canon in the context of a rock band with Nona Hendryx doing the vocals.
Hendryx is probably still best known for her time in the '70s soul trio Labelle but she has worked in all sorts of styles herself including collaborations with Bill Laswell and Talking Heads. Her voice cannot match Beefheart's incredible bleating croak but she does a fine job singing the songs in her own style. She brings a sassy kick to the jangly agitation of explosive tunes like "Sun Zoom Spark" and "Sugar 'n Spikes" and expressive tenderness to Beefheart ballads like "My Head Is My Only House," "Too Much Time" and "I'm Glad."
The instrumental side of things is dominated by Lucas' whirlwinds of slide guitar that buzz and spray over the wilder tunes. The tracks that come from the Trout Mask Replica era, such as "Sugar 'n Spikes" and "When It Blows Its Stacks," sound especially crazed thanks to Richard Dworkin's stomping drums and Jordan Shapiro's rolling organ. They turn the Howlin' Wolf-style "Rollin' and Tumblin'" groove of "Sure 'Nuff 'n Yes I Do" into a nifty blues hoedown as well with Shapiro pushing the tune along on both organ and honky tonk piano.
Maybe the most impressive part of the project is the polish given to Beefheart's more conventional songs. "Too Much Time" comes off like a gritty Muscle Shoals soul grinder with rich organ and sassy vocals, the arrangement of "I'm Glad" with swaying background vocals could pass for an old Smokey Robinson ballad and "Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles" is sung to a hypnotic guitar and electric piano vamp that matches the low-burning passion in Hendryx's voice nicely.
For all its surface craziness, there has always been a solid musical core to Captain Beefheart's work and this project brings that out. Nona Hendryx's soulful moan fits right in with the intricate pummeling of the band, helping give the tunes a sensuality they did not originally have. This CD is also a reminder that Beefheart wrote a number of genuinely lovely songs as well as hellacious rock-blues stomps. Hopefully this will lead more people to investigate his work.
Sun Zoom Spark; My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains; Sure 'Nuff 'n Yes I Do; I'm Glad;
The Smithsonian Institute Blues (or The Big Dig); Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles; Suction
Prints; Sugar 'n Spikes; When Big Joan Sets Up; Too Much Time; When It Blows Its Stacks;
Tropical Hot Dog Night.
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