Ry Cooder, with his group, and Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, bowed to the New York Press at Ungano’s in mid-winter. Both are among the more progressive Warner/Reprise acts, though their use of musical traditions accounts in part for their unique sounds.
Cooder, on first, played a brief set composed entirely of country blues pieces from the 1920s and 30s, originated by Blind Willie Johnson, Sleepy John Estes, and others. His bottleneck guitar, and his mandolin styling as well, were classic in that he approached his material as a series of composed pieces. (Few country blues pieces were improvisational in character; most were worked out by their originators down to the last note.) His technique was flawless, the accompanying trio navigated the metrical difficulties with ease, and Cooder’s vocals were genuine and personally idiomatic.
Beefheart’s Magic Band is a legend in its own time. Their set was a bare indication of their capabilities, but it did demonstrate the free ensemble style they have developed. The band played with a crashing, rolling motion, rocking but without any heavy handed emphasis on bar lines. Beefheart’s incredible penetrating voice was a bit contained, but right on with a few songs and some recitation. His band is far into his conception, and together they are creating the most advanced pop music of the decade, with roots both in the blues and in the New Jazz.