C.B. & James ‘Blood’ Ulmer at The Beacon Theatre, New York City review

This piece was written by Andrew Sussman and appeared in the April 1981 Down Beat.

Personnel: (Beefheart & Magic Band) Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart): vocals, harmonica, Chinese gongs, soprano sax; Jeff Moris Tepper, Richard Snyder: guitars; Eric Drew Feldman: electric bass, synthesiser, keyboards; Robert Arthur Williams: drums; Gary Lucas: guitar on Flavor Bud Living. (Ulmer Quintet) Ulmer: guitar; Julius Hemphill: saxes; Olu Dara: trumpet; Amin Ah: bass; Calvin Weston: drums.

Inspired is a word which is frequently misused, particularly when applied to an event or a concept. Yet the pairing of Don Van Vliet (a.k.a. Captain Beefheart) and James “Blood” Ulmer can be described in no better fashion. Performing before a capacity crowd one chilling night after Thanksgiving, Beefheart appeared in his first formal concert in New York City since 1973. An overwhelming success, it proclaimed once again the innovations Van Vliet has been offering us for years.

No less innovative, or inspirational, or highly acclaimed of late is the work of guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer. His music has been described as “jazz / punk” and “harmolodic” (the term Ornette Coleman invented to describe his conceptual theory), but it is more than that. There are dimensions to Ulmer’s art which transcend labels of any kind; while Coleman’s influence cannot be denied, the guitarist has added an individual stamp of excitement and vitality which is intensified by a striking stage presence. In person he exhibits a magnetic physical attraction which, coupled with the almost totally unpredictable direction of his music, rivets the audience’s attention to a fascinating mixture of chaos and form. Or is it shadow and substance?

Appearing here with a quintet, his solos were maddeningly enticing, frantic and energetic and so incredibly animated as to leave the listener practically exhausted. But Ulmer himself is apparently indefatigable. His discordant modulations hypnotise as they simultaneously relax the listener. Their schizoid, mesmerising quality creates extreme tension yet maintains a driving pulse which could easily be danceable. It is somehow a bizarre combination, yet one which, in UImer’s capable hands, seems totally natural.

Opening the set with an exhilarating trio number, the guitarist was joined by the horn players for the second composition, and the electricity was duly intensified. Each member of the band offered an intelligent voice of his own and an alert understanding of the construction of the piece. Calvin Weston propelled them at an unyielding pace ( all be it his drumming was at times more visual than aesthetic, overpowering the rest of the group and drowning out their statements.)

Thus the direction was established, and the emotional content accelerated. Ulmer played in a fluid style which floated through constantly changing harmonic routes. He is a virtuoso who employs a unique rhythmic, percussive approach; he punctuates impossibly quick runs and clusters with furious passion. His singing voice is somehow reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix bullying his way through a crazy backwards blues. The music is ‘free’ and atonal, yet highly orchestrated and arranged; even when all the artists were improvising concurrently, there was a cohesion which was never lost. Individually, none of the other musicians was able to match Ulmer in content or energy, and Hemphill in particular has been heard to better advantage in other contexts. Hearing them together was an eclectic and draining experience; it was a hard act for Beefheart to follow.

He set out to mould the night into a triumph by ushering Eric Feldman onstage for an unaccompanied romp on the electric bass which dwelt on funk and showmanship and built anticipation for the high drama which was to follow. For, as Don van Vliet made their entrance, it became apparent that this was to be a theatrical experience as much as a musical one. In fact, Captain Beefheart sculpted his way through the evening as a magnificent choreographer, directing each aspect of the performance with such precision and skill that it transcended definition and became a total statement of the creative process, unshackled by ordinary expectations.

The stage resembled that of a play, with Chinese gongs and a chequered-cloth covered table (from which Beefheart occasionally hoisted bottles of what appeared to be Perrier) set in the centre. The band members were dressed in bright pyjama-like outfits of red and green and black; as they danced through the various acts, it was more than the obligatory rock gyrations: an imaginative creation of colour against motion.

Beefheart’s voice was a versatile and unpredictable as usual, projecting from a nasal whine to a shower of primal screams in a manner of split seconds. He barks and he shrieks; he threads brilliantly through the blues and he mumbles in a monotone. It’s said his vocal range spans seven and a half octaves, and he seemed determined to prove it true.

The word / image is still the integral part of van Vliet’s performance. It is the poetry of his language, and his delivery of the language: words following words following words following words, the sound of the syllables often seeming more important than the actual content. Which was just as well on the night, for the rather incompetent balance of the sound system rendered much of his lyric meaning inaudible. Yet it was far from gibberish: the imagery was more powerful than the acoustics.

The energy and tension were constantly maintained, though orchestrated masterfully. There were several solo pauses in the group activity, but none were overly indulgent or utilised as mere filler. The spice of Gary Lucas’ rhapsodic unaccompanied guitar (Flavor Bud Living) and his recitation of one of Beefheart’s poems were just as much a treat as the romping of the band through collective efforts. It was all a part of the whole drama as conceived by the leader, a drama of joy and intensity.

Don van Vliet is difficult to dissect and analyse, nor do I think that that is even proper of necessary. He is unique and has been an influential force for more than a decade. There’s grit and gravel and howling fury in his voice. There are rhythms which sometimes capture the essence of rock ‘n’ roll and sometimes, like the music he personally chose for the intermission, verge on Chinese opera.

This particular evening he growled his way through several compositions from his latest LP, Doc at the Radar Station (Hot Head, Ashtray Heart, Sheriff of Hong Kong), and many other works ranging from the gentle poignancy of Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles to the fever of Dr. Dark and Big Eyed Beans From Venus. Throughout the proceedings there was humour and there was and there was tremendous depth of perception.

The man (who recently told an interviewer that Eric Dolphy didn’t move him as much as the cry of a goose) channelled his own animalistic energy and blurted it through a swaggering screech. At 11pm when he left a jubilant audience demanding more because the theatre’s management threatened to shut off the electricity he never the less left them fulfilled. And he left intoning a few interesting words for us all to contemplate: “Ray Gun! Ray Gun! Ray Gun!”

1 Comment

  1. I played drums with Captain Beefheart that night and the show was cut short because of the Beacon Theater stagehand union rules.

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