The beautiful, weird, idiosyncratic music of Don Van Vliet, a.k.a. Captain Beefheart, has been so widely acclaimed for its revolutionary, forward-thinking stance that it’s a bit of a shock when you realize how little of it has been covered by other artists. Perhaps the utter strangeness of the music is too daunting a task for the average musician. Fortunately, there are adventurous artists out there who are up to the task.
Gary Lucas is such an artist. As a guitarist in Beefheart’s band during the later years – appearing on
Doc at the Radar Station (1980) and Ice Cream for Crow (1982) – his skills are finely attuned to the atonal fuzz of the Beefheart sound, whether it’s the proto-blues of the early albums, the trippy soul of his early ’70s work, or the punk noise of the early ’80s (the latter era inspiring such seminal artists as Pere Ubu, the Fall and Public Image, Ltd.). Since Beefheart’s retirement from music in 1982, Lucas has performed and recorded with a number of different musicians to interpret his former boss’ music in a variety of styles and settings. Famed R&B singer Nona Hendryx is one of the many artists who’ve collaborated with Lucas in these endeavors, performing many gigs with him and finally – with a great new album – releasing a series of Beefheart covers in the form of The World of Captain Beefheart.
While Lucas’ involvement is a no-brainer, it may seem odd that a female soul singer like Hendryx, who is best known in many circles as one-third of the soul trio Labelle (of “Lady Marmalade” fame) would be involved in such a project. But her time in Labelle eventually led to an extremely eclectic solo career, and the ’80s she became something of a new wave/indie darling, performing with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, and Yoko Ono. In this regard, her love of Beefheart’s music makes perfect sense.
That being said,
The World of Captain Beefheart takes a fairly straightforward approach to the songs. They’re not drastically rearranged, and rough edges are only occasionally smoothed out. The song selection is wide and varied, covering all phases of Beefheart’s career. Hendryx takes advantage of her mighty pipes on soul-flavored tracks like the warm, gentle “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains” and the shimmering doo-wop of “I’m Glad”. The lyrical mid-tempo funk of “Too Much Time” is one of the album’s highlights, showing off a song with enough hooks that should’ve made the original recording a freak pop hit back in 1972 (with Hendryx gamely singing lyrics like “Sometimes when it’s late, and I’m a little bit hungry / I heat up some old stale beans / Open up a can of sardines / Eat crackers and dream about somebody to cook for me”).
Lucas and Hendryx are backed by bassist Jesse Krakow, keyboardist Jordan Shapiro, and drummer Richard Dworkin, musicians who know Beefheart’s music like the back of their hands. While they handle the more accessible stuff with ease, they’re equally adept at tackling the more “difficult” songs, as are Lucas and Hendryx. Two songs from Beefheart’s notoriously cracked masterpiece
Trout Mask Replica are covered: “Sugar’N Spikes” is a dense, multilayered puzzle with plenty of prog-rock tempo shifts, and “When Big Joan Sets Up” is utter chaos, Hendryx reciting the typically Dadaist lyrics while Lucas and the rest of the band whirl alongside her like a tornado.
There’s plenty of moments when the weirdness and accessibility meet somewhere down the middle, such as on “The Smithsonian Institute Blues”, a song from 1970’s fan-favorite album
Lick My Decals Off, Baby. The bluesy crawl of the song breathes a lot easier than some of the more challenging songs here, but the written guitar and marimba lines suggest a somewhat measured, Zappa-esque absurdity. Throughout this song as well as the rest of the album, the entire band finds just the right tone, bouncing back and forth between earnest soul, caffeinated punk, free jazz and delta blues. The stately funk rock of “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles”, for example, coexists beautifully with the psychotic rockabilly instrumental “Suction Prints”.
At 12 songs coming in at just under 40 minutes, the only problem with
The World of Captain Beefheart is that it’s over too soon. A double album with additional tracks like “China Pig”, “Blabber’N Smoke”, “Hot Head” and “Nowadays a Woman’s Gotta Hit a Man” – among others – would have been ideal. Perhaps a sequel is in the works. In the meantime, what we’re left with is a loving tribute to a true musical visionary and an album that will hopefully prove to be a gateway drug for newbies looking to discover the wonderful world of Captain Beefheart.