Around July 2017 John French was invited to take part in the Austin Corn Lovers Fiesta in October to celebrate the music of Captain Beefheart with a collection of local musicians.
This was an exciting opportunity for John to not only perform in the US but also to present some of Don’s songs with an extended band, horns, back-up singers and even a concert level theremin player!
The Radar Station was unable to attend the show but we know someone who did and he has sent us this review of the event.
Review by Patrick Grant
Threadgill’s is a bar/restaurant/music venue in Austin, Texas having its origins in the 1930s. While a student at the University of Texas, and before leaving it for fame on the West Coast, future music legend Janis Joplin performed there many times with owner Kenneth Threadgill and others. Threadgill’s is hallowed Texas musical ground.
On Saturday October 7, 2017, another music legend — John “Drumbo” French — took to the stage at Threadgill’s downtown location on Riverside Drive for a one-off, highly unique performance of the music of Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band. Ever since Don Van Vliet ceased recording and touring as Captain Beefheart, Drumbo has carried the torch for the music and kept it alive with various configurations of The Magic Band. Now, Drumbo has become the last man standing for Beefheart’s music, having left the drum kit some time ago to front the band on vocals, harmonica and sax.
The Magic Band rarely performs in the U.S., and will conduct its “farewell tour” in the U.K. this November. As a result, this one-off Texas appearance by Drumbo was highly anticipated. And it just so happened to take place on the opening weekend of the Austin City Limits (ACL) Festival. Austin is well known as a music-lovers paradise, being home not only to the Austin City Limits television show on PBS, but also to the Austin City Limits Festival and the South by Southwest Music Conference & Festival. On this Saturday, as tens of thousands of music fans jostled for position at ACL to see headliners Red Hot Chili Peppers, approximately 200 of the cognoscenti gathered on bleachers and folding chairs in Threadgill’s intimate outdoor beer garden to hear Drumbo’s performance presented by the Austin Corn Lovers Fiesta. These “Beefheads” were true fans, anxious to see and hear Drumbo’s performance.
This style of music does not lend itself to a Chuck Berry approach to performance. In performing his classic set of rock tunes, Chuck Berry was known to simply show up at a venue with his guitar and meet his local backing band moments before taking the stage. A sound check might take place but more often than not it was a luxury. His local pickup band was expected to already know his music. Beefheart’s music is often much more complex, requiring much rehearsal time for proper execution. Drumbo spent five months in preparation for this show, prepared over 90 files of music which he sent to the musicians in advance, and arrived in Austin days in advance of the show for proper rehearsals on early Beefheart material from 1966-1972. It was time well spent.
Looking dapper in his white linen suit, fedora and scarf, Drumbo took the stage at 10:15 using a core band composed of Julien Peterson (drums, trout mask replica); Adam Kahan (bass); Bill Anderson (guitar; Austin Music Hall of Fame inductee); and Mohadev (guitar, slide guitar). Three of these musicians are members of “Churchwood”, an Austin band noted for its Tom Waits and Beefheart influences who performed prior to Drumbo. Fittingly, they quickly established their credentials with “Moonlight in Vermont” from 1969’s Trout Mask Replica, followed by Beefheart’s 1966 single version of Bo Diddley’s “Diddy Wah Diddy”. Next up were two driving tunes from 1972’s The Spotlight Kid: “When It Blows Its Stacks” and “Click Clack”. Toward the end of the latter, one of the guitarists broke a string, leading to the first surprise of the evening. After the band finished the tune and were exchanging guitars, Drumbo killed time with an a capella performance of “Orange Claw Hammer”, a lyric-dense tune from Trout Mask Replica. I was surprised he was able to pull this out of his hat on the spot. The core band the closed this segment of the show with “Dropout Boogie” (with its Kinks-like “You Really Got Me” riff) from 1967’s Safe as Milk album.
At this point, things got really interesting with the addition of a four-piece horn section consisting of Matt Behn (tenor sax); Leila Louise Henley (baritone sax); Dillon Buhl (trombone); and Matt Ondrey (trumpet). The charts Drumbo arranged for the horn section added additional interest to the tunes they covered. First was an extended big band style workout on “Webcor” (aka “Clouds”), an arrangement based on the intro to “The Clouds Are Full of Wine (Not Whiskey or Rye)” from 1970’s Lick My Decals Off, Baby album. Drumbo’s arrangement set up the horn section for some free jazz blowing a la Frank Zappa. Drumbo singled them out for undertaking this difficult piece. This was followed by “Steal Softly Thru Snow” and “Nowaday’s A Woman’s Gotta Hit a Man” on which Drumbo summoned Howlin’ Wolf in his vocals and harp playing against the honking horn section.
The next segment of the show saw Drumbo kicking up the dust a notch by augmenting the band with backup vocalists Michelle Kahan, Adrienne Pedrotti Bingamon, and Aileen Adler — a Frida Kahlo lookalike who also played exquisite theremin. We were now treated to the sight of a stage packed with twelve well-rehearsed, excellent musicians (dubbing themselves “The Magic Moments Band”) playing Beefheart material with a depth I have never experienced before in a live setting.
The Delta-blues based “Sure ‘Nuff ‘n Yes I Do” was given new life with R&B style backing vocals. Then came a surprise worth the price of admission alone: the never-performed-live “Autumn’s Child” which Drumbo rearranged somewhat to fit his vocal range. The band hit all the time shifts and Aileen Adler shined on theremin. “Circumstances” followed with its “Click Clack”-style rhythm, with Drumbo competing with the vocalists to see who could hold the longest notes and having fun by teasing the audience with false endings. As the final song, “Electricity” was given an eight minute workout. The horn section and backing vocals really brought this chestnut to life, and Aileen Adler excelled excelled on her theremin. This performance was twice as long and involved three times as many musicians as the version performed in 1968 on the beach in Cannes, France by Beefheart.
In sum, this was an excellent night to celebrate Beefheart’s music and Drumbo’s fundamental contributions to it. Drumbo was clearly into it, as were the musicians and the audience. This was the type of special show that music fans live for. After he wraps his November 2017 U.K. farewell tour of The Magic Band, hopefully Drumbo will continue to celebrate this music by more frequent one-off special presentations. An annual return to Threadgill’s under the auspices of the Austin Corn Lovers Fiesta would be a dream come true.
Check out these videos of John French & The Magic Moments band on YouTube. Not all the songs have been filmed while some have a couple of versions available:
- Moonlight On Vermont
- Click Clack
- The Clouds Are Full Of Wine
- Steal Softly Thru Snow and Steal Softly Thru Snow
- Nowadays A Woman’s Gotta Hit A Man and Nowadays A Woman’s Gotta Hit A Man
- Sure Nuff N’ Yes I Do and Sure Nuff N’ Yes I Do
- Autumn’s Child and Autumn’s Child
- Circumstances and Circumstances
- Electricity and Electricity
- Big Eyed Beans From Venus