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Don Van Vliet (born Don Glen Vliet; January 15, 1941 – December 17, 2010) was an American musician, singer-songwriter, artist and poet known by the stage name Captain Beefheart. His musical work was conducted with a rotating ensemble of musicians called the Magic Band (1965–1982), with whom he recorded 13 studio albums. Noted for his powerful singing voice with its wide range, Van Vliet also played the harmonica, saxophone and numerous other wind instruments. His music blended rock, blues and psychedelia with avant-garde and contemporary experimental composition. Beefheart was also known for exercising an almost dictatorial control over his supporting musicians, and for often constructing myths about his life.
During his teen years in Lancaster, California, Van Vliet developed an eclectic musical taste and formed ‘a mutually useful but volatile’ friendship with Frank Zappa, with whom he sporadically competed and collaborated. He began performing with his Captain Beefheart persona in 1964 and joined the original Magic Band line-up, initiated by Alexis Snouffer, in 1965. The group drew attention with their cover of Bo Diddley's Diddy Wah Diddy, which became a regional hit. It was followed by their acclaimed debut album Safe as Milk, released in 1967 on Buddah Records. After being dropped by two consecutive record labels, they signed to Zappa's Straight Records. As producer, Zappa granted Beefheart unrestrained artistic freedom in making 1969's Trout Mask Replica, which ranked 58th in Rolling Stone magazine's 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In 1974, frustrated by lack of commercial success, he released two albums of more conventional rock music that were critically panned; this move, combined with not having been paid for a European tour, and years of enduring Beefheart's abusive behavior, led the entire band to quit. Beefheart eventually formed a new Magic Band with a group of younger musicians and regained contemporary approval through three final albums: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (1978), Doc at the Radar Station (1980) and Ice Cream for Crow (1982).
Van Vliet has been described as ‘...one of modern music's true innovators’ with ‘...a singular body of work virtually unrivalled in its daring and fluid creativity.’ Although he achieved little commercial or mainstream critical success, he sustained a cult following as a ‘highly significant’ and ‘incalculable’ influence on an array of New Wave, punk, post-punk, experimental and alternative rock musicians. Known for his enigmatic personality and relationship with the public, Van Vliet made few public appearances after his retirement from music (and from his Beefheart persona) in 1982. He pursued a career in art, an interest that originated in his childhood talent for sculpture, and a venture that proved to be his most financially secure. His expressionist paintings and drawings command high prices, and have been exhibited in art galleries and museums across the world. Van Vliet died in 2010, having suffered from multiple sclerosis for many years.
This extraordinary record catches the Captain at his best; live on stage in 1977. A few days after the show he said:
“This band is so good - the best I have ever had! They play with a smile. They really breathe up there when they are playing. After all this time I have finally found the band I'm looking for. It's amazing! Playing with this group is like going for a walk: they are so happy when they play. People I meet from the audience have been coming up and telling me how pleased they are that I have finally found a band that I am content with - and they are right.
The gig we played in Paris was monstrous. It was three days ago, but I haven't slept since - it was so good! And my voice, well, I can still feel that show in my voice. It hit me so hard I am down to three octaves .... I couldn't get over the way the audience was singing along with it, singing the words back at me in English - and I don't speak a word of French.
This group, I tell you, I couldn't believe that there were such nice people still around on this earth. True, they are playing what I have written, but they really are playing. This band is moving so fast that very soon I won't have to tell them anything. I really must say: this band is the best .... “
Unmasked Don down in Sorbonne rocking his marbles off on the Trotskyists request.
Given the scarcity of Don Van Vliet’s official concert products, any legalized bootleg is bound to draw fans’ attention, but this one may actually cross over to a wider audience thanks to its fairly decent sound quality and the span. Here’s a nice cross-section of Captain’s recorded output – with no reference to Beefheart’s recent Mercury albums but with hopeful renditions from yet-to-be-unreleased “Bat Chain Puller” including its title chug of a track – delivered by his new ensemble. The quartet kick it all into gear by picking up the “Trout Mask Replica” theme of “Hair Pie: Bake III” and the groove of “Suction Prints” yet don’t bother much with further crunch, once their leader cuts into the “Low Yo Yo Stuff” chant, renders “Electricity” funereal or taps into the “Abba Zabba” brilliant mojo.
Whether the French crowd gets the sharpness of poetry recitals such as “The Dust Blows Forward And The Dust Blows Back” or Morris Tepper’s twang for “A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Gets To A Diamond” is debatable, but there’s no escaping the rare catchy blues of “Grow Fins” or the heavy funk of “Click Clack” before the drift gets duller, if humorous. As a result, “My Human Gets Me Blues” ups the idiosyncrasy of Beefheart’s performance and “The Blimp” rolls out a bout of hysteria, while “Owed T’Alex” – titled “Carson City” here – crawls so creepy it jars, as does “Pachuco Cadaver” on the upbeat terms. Still, “Big Eyed Beans From Venus” has a bastardly charming ring to it and reveals a genuine, often hidden from non-fans, greatness of the Captain. Warts and all, a nice snapshot of him in action.
15 A Carrot is as close as a rabit gets to a diamond.