This live review was written by Tristram Lozaw and originally appeared in February 1981 Boston Rock.
Pressed in a recent Lester Bangs interview for something he could compare to his music, Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart named the “speed and emotion” of works by artist Franz Kline. Beefheart seems to rely on shapes instead of notes. Word sounds instead of lyrics. Equations that don’t necessarily balance.
Approaching music as the artist / sculptor he is, Beefheart’s communiques are more often directed at his band (his canvas) than the audience. A painter doesn’t throw a swash of color onto his creation and then talk to onlookers about whether they enjoyed it, nor does he wait for their approval before he proceeds. An artist never even has to meet his “audience”. His work can hang in a gallery somewhere for all to see. When he creates he usually does so in the solitude of his studio.
You get the feeling that the Captain would really rather be alone with his band, but he understands that music needs an audience and the communal energy that can only happen in live performances, whether he likes the audiences’ contributions to the final creation or not. Concert crowds, like oil paints and guitar strings, often do whatever they want, rather than what they’re expected to do.
At the Paradise, he took advantage of the ears present to make public his views on Reagan (repeatedly) and autonomous technology at M.I.T., but got annoyed when people talked through some piano banging, instead of focusing their complete concentration on the stage.
Friday night, the Paradise was, so quiet; it might as well have been an opening at the MFA. More of a cultural experience than a rock concert. Saturday, a livelier crowd showed up. They gave the openers, Suade Cowboys, a respectable reception for their loose, gritty, hoppity funk which features a wah-sax. The Suade’s ended with their best song, “Standin’ On The Verge of Getting It On,” and the crowd settled in for the appearance of their hero.
The applause that greeted Beefheart when Magic Band Mark IV took the stage was as much for the fact that the Captain was still around as anything else. He pitted his soprano sax against some Dan Electra bass work in a hot little twosome to start off a set of over 20 offerings bimbo poetry and bat noise builds that ranged from the early “Abba Zabba” and a swaying mandolin ballad to Fender instrumentals and china gongs and material from the Doc LP, easily the most passionately delivered stuff of the night. He encored with a potent version of “Upon The My Oh My” that was too loud, probably on purpose.
If musicians bang around long enough they eventually make some sort of dent. But unlike most, Beefheart’s music is just as prime and primal as it was ten years ago, if not quite as disarming as the first time it buzzed by our ears. Years of his music trickling down and the advent of new wave give him more listeners now than probably ever before, but still not anywhere near enough.
Beefheart’s live shows have never slipped much below an A rating and his albums have followed much the same route (no fights about the two “commercial” ventures, please). But just as some deserved wider recognition appears imminent, the sky caves in. Just as Beefheart released the Doc At The Radar Station LP, his best batch of songs in eight years, to an avalanche of favorable press, his record label’s distribution deals evaporated off the map.
The Captain’s caucasian funk – a curious mixture of delta scribblings and country & western, twice amplified and twice removed may never make the bigtime. But it will always be important.