All Tomorrow's Parties - The Magic Band
Sam Hunt: A Captain-less version of the legendarily gnarled psychedelic blues band navigated through the Beefheart catalog with a “turn-back-the-clock day” lineup of former Beefheart players, few of whom ever actually played with one another at any given time. The glaring absence of Don Van Vliet himself (now a desert recluse who traded in music for a lucrative painting career) wore off surprisingly quickly, and the band opened with a few characteristically tight, angular Magic Band instrumentals. Comprised of Mark “Rockette Morton” Boston on bass, Gary “Mantis” Lucas on guitar, Denny “Feelers Reebo” Walley on guitar, and John “Drumbo” French on drums (and, halfway through, vocals; Michael Traylor then came in on drums), the Magic Band sounded as sharp and explosive as one would expect from such well-schooled alumni as these. In spite of their lack of historical affiliation there seemed to be no shortage of onstage chemistry, especially given the degree of precision and concentration necessary for such irregularly structured music. Mantis and Feelers Reebo presented a particularly effective exchange. As Feelers Reebo took charge of the more precisely complex guitar lines, Mantis hammered out uniquely Magic Band-shaped chords, and occasionally fired off crispy slide guitar lines.
After 20-odd minutes of instrumental songs, Drumbo climbed forward from his drum set, grabbed a microphone, and offered his uncannily Van Vliet-like vocals to a walk through the Magic Band’s history. Opening with one of the very best and most overlooked Magic Band songs, Drumbo raged through “Floppy Boot Stomp” (from the barely released Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) with all of the furious energy and charisma of a televangelist, violently gesturing and flailing his arms about with the look of a man possessed (can one be possessed by the living?). Out in the open air, under the light of a recently eclipsed full moon, the price of admission was instantly validated as Drumbo furiously growled the song’s repeated refrain of “And the sky turned white in the middle of the night and the sky turned white!!!”
Drumbo slipped comfortably into the role of band leader, delivering informative and mildly patronizing lectures about the history and nature of the Magic Band and MC-ing the band through a set that leaned heavily on Trout Mask Replica and Safe As Milk (on which Drumbo originally played).
Nobody seems more excited about the prospect of a public rediscovery of the Magic Band than the band itself, and much of the song choice and Drumbo’s between-song lessons seemed part of an effort to engage the supposedly unknowing public about a band whose songs are without influence or equal. However truthful you might believe this to be, and however deserving this particular assembly of Magicians may be of their due respect, to the unknowing fan, this was, perhaps, a rather abrasive position (“I’m starving for my art!” “Nothing is like what I do!”) to take. Still, it was hard not to be excited for them as they ploughed through the impressive repertoire with giddy precision and fierce excitement.
Sam Frank: Agreed, but they did get a mite sloppy, especially toward set’s end. Also, fleeting moments were individually show-offy—Look what us “sidemen” can do!—ditching the hive-mind, ping-pong tightness and spatial complexity that made the band great. But nothing was unearned—they can play well enough to show off, they did play on some of rock’s most important, alien records—so I’m not complaining.
We talked to Gary Lucas before the set; when the tape began, he was talking about loving, and playing, Beefheart early on.
Gary Lucas: I remember rehearsing for weeks, months, day after day—Beefheart’s not easy music to keep in your head.
Sam Frank: You’ve been rehearsing your whole life for this.
GL: You could say that. I got the bug when I was a young boy—it changed my life. I went and I saw his debut in New York, 1970, I was a student at Yale and I knew all about him, I was a fan and I went down and I heard he was going to play. And it changed my life. I said, “If I ever do anything in music, I want to play with this guy.” And then we got to be friendly. I’d always visit him backstage when he’d come to New York. But I never told him I played, I didn’t think I was good enough—I was a very shy person, and I’m still a little bit shy. Secretly I was studying the parts, I was working at home. I heard the band broke up, and he showed up with Zappa on the Bongo Fury tour—I approached him. He was like, [in Beefheart voice] “Why didn’t you tell me you played?” And he told me to come up with my guitar to Boston. I auditioned in a hotel room. That’s how it happened. It was a big thing for me, like running away to join the circus.
Ben Tausig: So how does it sound having John singing?
GL: It’s great, because if anyone can attempt to sing in that Beefheart style…he really pulls it off and it’s great. He’s got the authentic feeling, he’s inhabited by Beefheart’s spirit.
BT: Have you talk to Don [van Vliet—Beefheart]?
GL: I haven’t in years, but I love the guy. I have nothing but respect and love for him. If you know anything about the history of the Magic Band members with Don, sometimes it’s better to just keep the good vibe and the memories of it than to try to engage in an ongoing relationship.
SF: Is he painting now?
GL: I hope so. I’m proud of the fact that I hooked him up with Julian Schnabel and I hooked him up with the Mary Boone Gallery. It began his full-time gig as a professional painter. I did that while acting as his manager, which I did for five years. It was a labor of love. My mission for all those years was to make him as famous as I could. I thought he had gotten a really raw deal.
SF: What kind of crowds were you playing to?
GL: In those days? I did one tour of Europe and one half of a U.S. tour, and they were pretty good in the big cities, there were people who knew the stuff and liked it. But when we got out to Albany or Buffalo, there’d be 25 people the night after we played Saturday Night Live. It was tough out there in the hinterlands.
SF: You did SNL once?
GL: I did two records with him. The last two on Virgin, Ice Cream for Crow and Doc at the Radar Station. I got this video made, and then MTV refused to show it—I got it in the Museum of Modern Art, in their permanent collection. Once in a while now MTV is showing it, but back then they said, “We don’t want to show it.” I got him on the David Letterman show twice—that was a big accomplishment. I’m proud of the work. I put in five long years with this; I gave him a lot of blood. I thought it was worth it. I still do. He was seminal.
SF: How long has this reunion been going on for?
GL: They contacted me a year ago. They were trying to do it with Zoot Horn Rollo, and he didn’t want to do it. I was playing in Atlanta, Denny Walley saw me, they approached me, I said, “Yeah, I’m interested,” and it’s worked out. But it’s been a real labor of love.
SF: Do you see it keeping on going? Are you going to write new songs?
GL: I don’t think so. We thought about that, but I have my own career as Gary Lucas, and I’m full-time involved in that. But I love doing this, and hopefully we’ll add some of the other songs; we’re doing “Electricity” tonight for the first time.
BT: How have you felt about the newer acts that you’ve seen today?
[Denny Walley, guitarist, enters]
GL: Denny got me in this band—it’s his fault.
Denny Walley: We started to put it together a year and a half ago, maybe a little longer. There were contractual problems, and it took ten months to get a contract, and by the time we got the contract it didn’t resemble anything that we had agreed upon. So Zoot decided to scoot.
It kind of went dormant. “Can we still do this?” So we tossed some things back and forth, maybe they’d go with John Thomas again, who played great keyboards. But we said, “No, this is a guitar band. I’m not going with a keyboard player. It’s bad enough I had to tour with a fucking trombone for a bass. I’m not going out with a keyboard player. Gary Lucas is the only guy I know that has the ability to play that shit and do the needlepoint.”
GL: When I met Denny, he and Don were doing the Bongo Fury tour with Zappa, and they came to my hometown, and I went and had a reunion with Don and said, “Why don’t you come out and hang?” And he said, “I want to bring thus guy Denny Walley along.” We spent a night together going around Syracuse, New York, where I’m from. We went to an all-night barbeque in this guy’s backyard in a heavy black ghetto. It was a great experience. Also, when I started my own band, Gods and Monsters, Denny was at the fucking first concert we ever did, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, 1989. He’s always turned up at the seminal turning points in my life.
DW: We got together. The band had never played together. I told Gary, “Why don’t you come to my place in Atlanta, stay with me for three days, we’ll play the stuff.” From the first note…we knew. We just played together real well.
SF: What do you think about the legend of how Trout Mask Replica happened versus the reality of it? Can you go through that again? That it happened in a [snaps]. [Note: neither was in the band for Trout Mask—SF]
DW: It took a little longer than that. It was an epiphany. But the thing that made it a reality was that John French had to laboriously sit down and listen to all that stuff on a piano, write it out, and assign parts to guys. He would take chords Don was playing and give part of the chord to this guy, “Here, you play these notes.” It got to the point where Don would do something, and John would say, “What do you want me to do?” “Ahhh, you know.”
GL: That’s what Don did with us, too. The band didn’t write the stuff, but we had an influence on how we did it.
DW: We had to figure out a way to do it. Because you can’t play the keyboard on the guitar. He’d say, “Play that chord.” You only got four fingers you can use, you can use your thumb too, you only got six strings—how the hell you gonna play ten notes? In order to accomplish that, we had to pass the notes around, “Here, you cover this one, I can’t do it. It’s impossible. I can’t play four octaves. Sorry”
SF: For this new line-up, are you rearranging the music?
GL: We’re trying to do it very faithfully
DW: We’re doing it faithfully. It’s just that we’re playing it with a lot more energy. Whereas, when we played in the band, we were more or less the drapes—we were the drapery behind the main object, and so the music, we really couldn’t crank it. But now we can get up and rip face with it. And when you’re playing with that kind of enthusiasm, it seems to transcend the ages and it reaches a bigger audience. Plus, the audience now is so much more sophisticated. When we started the band, the band was started thirty years ago [actually, first album in 1967—SF], a lot of years were not ready for a lot of stuff that was going on. But now there’s so many bands playing so many great different things. They picked up on world music. They understand different rhythms, they understand dissonance and chord structure.
SF: Are you interested in that way in any of the bands playing the festival?
DW: I’ll tell you, who I loved was Black Heart Procession.
GL: I liked them too.
DW: The Shins.
BT: How do you fell about playing with Iggy and James Chance?
DW: I think it’s great. I think this is a beautiful package, you know? I just have to grin when I think about it. When we did our first [reunion] gig in London, we didn’t know what to expect. They didn’t know what to expect. They thought they were going to wheel out a bunch of wizened prunes with IV units hanging off of them and wheelchairs and shit. We came out and we ripped their heads off. The first five rows, it looked like an AC/DC concert. A lot of people who hadn’t ever heard us before, and some who were the children of people that were listening to us when we first started. You had people in their 60s to 15. And they were digging it. We were laughing on stage. We didn’t know what to expect. You never know—the English can be really dicey if they want to be, they can rip your heart out.
SF: Did NME rave?
DW: I don’t think so.
Matt Groening, introducing the Magic Band: “Trout Mask Replica changed my life. There’s never been music made like this before in rock and roll. …And in a special treat, for all you really hardcore fans, I’m going to be sitting in on every song on cowbell. For those of you who fainted, I’m just kidding. And now, ladies and gentlemen, I love all the bands who are playing here today, but right now I’ve like to introduce my favorite band, the Magic Band!”
* Please see our forum for Gary Lucas' comments about this remark.
By Dusted Magazine