By Daniel Margrain
Review of The Magic Band, Under The Bridge, Chelsea, London, Friday, November 20.
It was a bitterly cold night in west London. I had exited the tube at West Brompton and hadn’t taken into account the 20 minute walk to the venue. Yes, I should have got off at Fulham Broadway which, as I later discovered, was two minutes away but I didn’t know that at the time and neither, apparently, did the venues web writers.
The band were due on stage for the first of their two sets at 8.15 and it was already eight. I didn’t have the faintest idea where I was going. On leaving the station I approached the first person I saw and asked him for directions. I was directed the wrong way. I double checked that I hadn’t put on my West Ham top by mistake and that I wasn’t humming the ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ tune under my breath.
Apart from the one time I had ventured to the Bridge with my nephew, the only other time I had visited the Stamford dump predated the Abramovitch era by years at a time in history when part of Stamford Bridge was literally at the point of collapsing, which, if memory serves me correctly, was the section of the ground near the infamous Shed end.
We lost 2-1 that day and I got soaked through to the skin. The Russian mafia money has of course transformed a crumbling ground into a shiny stadium but I wasn’t going to ever get there walking in the wrong direction.
Eventually realizing that I had been given a ride up the wrong proverbial garden path, I turned around and began pacing frantically in the opposite direction passing the tube station on my right. I hit some lights, did a right and carried on walking for another 15 minutes until I reached the bright neon lights of Under The Bridge which was located, as you might of guessed, under the stadium.
Propped up against a wall by the entrance to the venue stood the author Will Self who was chugging on an e cigarette. I took that as a sign that the band had not yet taken to the stage, so I relaxed. You enter the venue proper by a short narrow passage, the walls on either side are plastered with various framed photos of legendary, and not so legendary, artists that reminded me of the kind of set up they had at Dingwalls in Camden in the 1980s.
Numerous photos of this nature were dotted throughout the venue clearly modelled on the kinds of Blues bars dotted throughout America – open and spacious with a semi-circular design and a raised perimeter section where the bar and comfortable looking stools were located. These faced down towards an impressive stage that was easily visible from wherever you stood.
The omens were looking good. This was certainly one of, if not the, best music venues of its size that I had the pleasure of frequenting and was clearly evidence of criminal money being put to good use. I grabbed myself a bottle of pear cider at the bar and then found a suitable position stage left by a circular pillar.
No sooner had I got comfortable when I was approached by a guy who looked to be his mid to late 60s who proceeded to give me an ear bashing about how he had seen the original Magic Band with the Captain back in the late 1960s and had subsequently seen the group play live in its various incarnations throughout the years.
I have to admit that the gig which was shortly to unfold before my eyes left me with a feeling of trepidation especially as my new found mate was praising the band so much. Since I had deliberately set out to avoid seeing any of their live performances on you tube or reading any of their reviews, I had no idea what to expect.
About seven or eight years ago I had seen The Electric Prunes at Camden’s Underworld only to have wished that I hadn’t had too much to dream the previous night. The gig was a disaster and my memories of the times I had listened in total awe to the bands records had been forever tainted by what I had witnessed live that night.
If ever there was a case for a band calling it a day, the Prunes, sadly, were it. Of course, for every Electric Prune there is an Arthur Lee and Love, so it’s far from necessarily being the case that all bands from the 60’s turn out to be shocking 30 or 40 years down the line.
However, the more my new found companion raved about The Magic Band, the more apprehensive I became and the more I began to think that they might not reach the level beyond that of a tribute band. He told me he last saw the group at the Garage in Islington in 2011 and described the gig as one of the greatest experiences of his life.
My expectations were now being raised whether I wanted this to be the case or not. I decided that it was best just to go with the flow, take whatever comes my way and ride the crest of the wave along with 700 others.
I’ll lay my cards on the table. I first heard Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band back in 1980 on the John Peel Show. The album Peel played to death that year was ‘Doc At The Radar Station’. Peel was a long standing fan of Beefheart and ‘Doc’ represented the rebirth of the man following his creative fallow period during the early 1970s after having arrived in England.
As an impressionable young man I regarded somebody of the stature of Peel as an authority as to what was ‘good’ and ‘cool’. And for Peel, the Captain reigned supreme. He was the Godfather of post-punk and consequently most of the younger generation of bands worth listening to at the time were influenced by Don Van Vliet.
To be honest, at that time, I didn’t understand the music of the Captain because I hadn’t heard anything like it before. Because I didn’t understand it, I didn’t really like it but pretended to because it was cool to like Beefheart and most of the bands I liked referenced him so I got to thinking he must be good.
Nevertheless, I felt as though there was potentially something interesting in the music to explore but I just wasn’t at that moment ready to explore it. But given time, I could be educated, through repeated listens, to appreciate him, just like Peel, John Lydon and Mark E Smith did.
If John Peel had championed him and played him he must be good, I thought. I remember Peel used to regularly play a lifelong hero of mine on his show by the name of Neil Percival Young. But I remember thinking how can it be possible to like Neil Young and Captain Beefheart?
I tried to like the tracks off ‘Doc’ Peel used to play, but couldn’t get to grips with all those off-kilter demented psychedelic-blues rhythms, manic growls and weird lyrics. Then I got to seeing the Fall play at Totnes Civic Hall in 1981 and everything from that moment on fell into place.
The next day, I went into Castle Records in Torquay and to my surprise, I found ‘Doc At The Radar Station’ among the piles of albums. I took it home, put it on the turntable and everything clicked. Don’s cover art work also somehow started to make sense.
I used to play Neil Young loud but turned the volume down for ‘Doc’ because I thought the sound of the record might of alarmed the rest of the house. I’m happy to say that the great man still has that affect today which is as it should be.
Thereafter I began to check out the Captain’s back catalogue and haven’t looked back since. Some 34 years later, I stood cider in hand, looking at the Under The Bridge stage as the lights dimmed and the band hit the stage. Sadly, John “Drumbo” French is the only original member remaining from the band.
French took to his established role as drummer for a couple of songs while also playing the clarinet and harmonica. As expected, French is the glue that holds the rest of the band together but he is aided by brilliant younger musicians, namely guitarists Eric Klerks and Max Kutner, keyboardist Brian Havey and drummer Andrew Niven – all of whom stepped up to the plate admirably.
As one would expect from band members taking on the complex rhythms and odd time signatures that typify Beefheart’s music, the playing throughout was immense and I just couldn’t help but marvel at the musician’s timing and the manner in which they gelled as a tight unit.
Kutner was the perfect foil for Klerks and the drumming was exemplary. The interplay between band members was awesome. Amazingly, French seemed to hit all the right vocal notes and to my ears his range is almost as strong as Beefheart’s. No one can command the stage like the Captain but that’s not to say that French didn’t made a pretty good fist of translating his stage theatrics while adding a personality that was all his own.
In that sense the performance didn’t come across as a tribute act, but on the contrary, highlighted just how relevant the music of Beefheart still is to contemporary audiences, the age group of which crossed the spectrum. On the whole the set list was impressive although for me some songs didn’t quite work.
I could have done without ‘Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles’ and ‘Tropical Hot Dog Night’, for example which are just too conventional sounding for any serious Beefheart fan. ‘Click Clack’ from the underrated ‘Spotlight Kid’ and ‘Suction Prints’ were revelations, as was, of course, ‘Moonlight On Vermont’ and ‘Hair Pie Bake’ from Beefheart’s supreme masterpiece, ‘Trout Mask Replica’.
The main highlights were performed during the second set – ‘Stealing Softly Through Snow’ and the tour de force, ‘Electricity’. ‘The relatively obscure ‘Glider’ and the rip roaring ‘Big Eyed Beans From Venus’ from ‘Clear Spot’ wrapped up proceedings on what was a remarkable and unforgettable night.