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The Magic Band - Back to the Front

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Artist: The Magic Band

Album: Back to the Front

Label: ATP

Review date: Sep. 19, 2003

More than a passing hint of whole-hog promotional flogging fills the air when listening to The Magic Band, redux '03, play the same songs they played before Don Van Vliet (a.k.a. Captain Beefheart) settled permanently into a hermetic life. ATP records, the in-house label run by the organizers of Barry Hogan's All Tomorrow's Parties festival, have released a CD of the Magic Band's recent studio sessions called Back to the Front. Captain Beefheart retired to the desert many years ago, and didn't return for this reunion, but the release of Back to the Front, on which drummer John "Drumbo" French sings the part of the Captain with uncanny similitude, suggests that the experience of seeing the Magic Band today would be no disappointment. With the vocals so well accounted for, perhaps it would be just like seeing Captain Beefheart perform in 1968. And of all the bizarre coincidences, the Magic Band will be playing at the All Tomorrow's Parties (ATP) festival in Los Angeles this November.

Though brilliant musicians all, and capable musicians still, the members of this Magic Band (French, guitarist Gary "Mantis" Lucas, bassist Mark "Rockette Morton" Boston, and guitarist Denny Walley) make no overtures toward changing any of their old songs. Perhaps it's best that way, since few fans would argue that the originals could be modified with anything but disappointing results. Singular in their treatment of delta blues, free jazz, psychedelia, and modern rock (often simultaneously), Don Van Vliet's compositions remain as profoundly alien as Sun Ra's. Any addition or subtraction to them, especially if grounded in our world, would be inadequate. Besides, the current lineup is an amalgam: These four individuals were never in any incarnation of the ever-shifting ranks of the Magic Band at the same time.

In fact, what's heard on this disc is a collection of practice takes, not a polished finished product. Bits of unedited banter, laughter, a few miscues – the songs have the same giddy attitude they had 30 years ago. The group evinces a spirit of enjoyment here, rather than of laborious contractual fulfillment in the name of cash, and that's awfully important. French's imitation of Captain Beefheart's famous range and gritty intonation simply seals the deal. On "Sun Zoom Spark" and "Floppy Boot Stomp", French is dead-on, matching the Captain's original vocals holler-for-holler and growl-for-growl. So not only does the music sound the same, but there's a phonorealistic wax replica of the missing singer. All of which makes for a convincing piece of nostalgia. No, more than that. Back to the Front is the comprehensive recreation of a historical fantasy.

ATP founder Barry Hogan and Los Angeles ATP curator Matt Groening did much of the legwork in making the Magic Band's reunion possible, and the fantasy is theirs (though not theirs alone). Groening's liner notes make clear that this project holds special importance in his vision for ATP, arguably the most important independent music festival happening these days. One of the hallmarks of ATP in recent years has been the reincarnation of the long-latent or disbanded ancestors of today's experimental music scenes: Wire, Television, Destroy All Monsters, and Mission of Burma. The Magic Band are an impressive coup even alongside these names; perhaps only The Shaggs seem less probable. The imminence of their performing in November will rightfully thrill fans.

But the album baits. These versions sound so similar to the originals, stopping just short of note-for-note piety that those originals immediately begin to beckon. So, too, does the prospect of eating edimame for dinner every day this October in order to afford tickets to the festival. Therein lies the hard sell.

By Ben Tausig

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