Magic Band reunion 2003 report from John French

Many thanks to John French, drummer and (now) singer extraordinaire for sending along his thoughts about what it was like for Drumbo to perform Beefheart’s great songs for a wildly appreciative audience during the spring 2003 UK gigs.

Memories of UK Trip

The flight over was uneventful (thank heavens). I brought my wife Donna and daughter Jesse with me for this trip and drummer Robert Williams was on the same flight. We landed about 2:20 in the afternoon Monday 31st March and were met by Juan our tour manager and Barry.

We were then driven in a large van to our hotel in London, a small hotel in the Swiss Cottage area. After check-in, we relaxed and napped for a few hours, recovering from the droning roar of jet engines, and were taken to dinner by Barry Hogan and Juan at a place called Pizza Express.

On Tuesday morning, BBC Producer Elaine Shepherd, who is largely responsible for this whole reunion getting underway, called from the lobby to say “hello” and film the arrival of Denny Walley, his wife Janet, and Mark Boston. I had never met Janet in person although I had spoken to her on the phone, and she was every bit as charming as I had imagined.

Robert Williams was then interviewed in the lobby of the hotel by Elaine and filmed by cameraman Tim Sutton, who also filmed the rehearsal/recording near Los Angeles in February. Robert and I were then transported to The Depot, where my drums had been delivered, and where the MB would be rehearsing the following day. We set the kit up together and were filmed doing so. Elaine had previously asked for a time-lapse of the break down at my home to incorporate into the documentary.

We played the kit for a short while, and made minor adjustments so that the kit would work for both of us. Robert is a real team-player in this sense and gave me a huge amount of help in setting up at each show.

We were driven back to the hotel where Robert and Mark joined my family for dinner at a Cajun spot in the O2 Mall. There was a lot of very optimistic talk about the shows, although Boston was still more jet-lagged than we, having flown in a day later. We picked up a few things for the room and went to bed.

Our scheduled pickup at 9:30 was slightly delayed, and Gary Lucas and his wife Caroline Sinclair arrived Wednesday morning as we were waiting for our ride. It was decided that Denny and Mark would ride to The Depot and set up their gear, and then Gary, Robert, and I would join them about lunchtime. When we arrived, Mark and Denny had been set up for a while and were anxious to play. We had some technical problems hearing each other at first, and wound up a little discouraged the first hour or so that we couldn’t make it through an entire piece without a major glitch.

This was solved by Gary moving to the opposite side of the “stage”, which brought more separation to the guitars and allowed Mark and I to hear Denny more clearly. Band volume was a bit of an issue also, as when I began to sing, the band could not hear me well enough to be aided by the vocal cues.

I had decided to try playing the harmonica on “Click Clack” during the first verse, in-between the lyrics, and so Gary and I had to really “focus in” on each other’s playing. This was a little difficult at first. Bear in mind, we had only played together for five days previous to this, and although we were all familiar with the music, we were striving to familiarise ourselves with each other.

Each day, Barry and Juan would bring in sandwiches, salads, and plenty of water for us, so that we had little distraction and could focus on the rehearsal. We rehearsed until six the first two days, but had interviews scheduled for Friday and Saturday at 4:00 pm with various magazines and periodicals including Mojo, Guitar Player, and Rhythm.

I am not accustomed to doing interviews, and since my primary concern has always been the music, I perhaps wrongly conceived of these interruptions as “bothersome.” No one had ever wished to interview me personally before, as previously Don Van Vliet was always the primary focus. However, upon meeting the journalists, I had a quick change of mind and realised that this is an important part of the process.

Elaine and Tim came on Friday and not only filmed part of the rehearsal (which was extremely loud and seemed to run the Guitar Player representative completely out of the room), but also interviewed Boston and I for a short time to gather comments on our perspective of the rehearsals. We all later met on the roof for a photography session where the lighting was decent, and did a few shots on some stairs.

One of the problems that we encountered in rehearsals and on stage was that poor Gary is saddled with five different guitar tunings in the set list, and only three guitars, so he is constantly forced to tune and re-tune his guitars. This is due to the fact that Don required bottleneck on so many songs and this results in “slack key” tunings being required. Slack key tunings used on our set were “open G,” “Open A,” “Open E,” and these are all tunings that result in open chords: G, A, and E major respectively. Other tunings were standard and “dropped D” which is a standard tuning except for the fact that the sixth string (the fat one at the top) is lowered one full step from E to D. (I believe this is used in Big-Eyed Beans).

Denny brought 3 guitars, one of which was a double neck, so in essence, he had four tunings available, so his tuning requirements were a little less intense.

One of the special things for me about these concerts was the fact that Mark and I have not played on stage together for over thirty years. Denny and I for at least 27. Gary and I had never performed together having been in different incarnations of the MB and so this was all new for both of us. Overall, I was elated with the amount of co-operation we all seemed to have. There was a sense of teamwork, that we were all part of something bigger than ourselves, and that this was a special and historic event.

Sunday morning, we were to be picked up at our hotel at 6:30 (groan) for a 10:00 sound check at Camber Sands. I awoke at 5:30, and having taken my own exercise equipment
(called a Total Gym), I exercised as was my daily routine. My wife and daughter were to ride down with Elaine Shepherd and Tim Sutton at a later time, allowing time for me to pack my stage clothes and stage accessories, and be off without a hitch.

The ride was long and a bit crowded. Even though we had a fairly large Van, we were carrying guitars, garment bags, carry-alongs, etc. We arrived at Camber Sands to find the weather cold, windy, and overcast. After being taken to a Chalet, we were whisked off to the staging area where Robert Williams and I again set up the drum kit. Juan took care of the vocal and harmonica microphones, and in-ear monitor system I would be using.

I brought my own mixer (a small Mackie) and had control over a stereo band mix, a vocal feed, and a harmonica feed. The harmonica ran through a small “Tube Driver” which gave it a bit of distortion. This way, I could control my own mix to a large extent, and hear myself. Vocalists can lose their voice in minutes by “over singing” — that is, pushing their voice too hard because of lack of ability to hear oneself. I have some hearing damage, so I opted for an in-ear system, which basically is like earplug headphones, blocking out ambient sound while also giving a mix of what is desired to be heard.

I used a Sony wireless system that clipped to my belt for the monitor feed, a wireless SM58 Shure Microphone for vocals, and so was only tethered by a single cable: my Green Bullet harmonica mic. This made life a lot simpler than at rehearsal, where I was constantly twisting three cables into a giant knot, which had to be periodically wrestled to freedom.

Singing these songs was like a dream for me. Although I love playing the drums, I have always secretly wanted to be a singer and was actually singing in a group “Blues in the Bottle” when Van Vliet approached me about drumming for the Magic Band in late 1966. Don was my inspiration to become a singer/harmonica player. Blues in the Bottle included Jeff Cotton on guitar and Mark Boston on bass — so three of the four Trout Mask MB players were in this group.

Since I find the lyrics to be miles beyond anything written by contemporaries, I had no problem throwing myself completely into the task. It almost became an obsession and I sang for nearly an hour a day, sometimes singing 2 or 3 and developing laryngitis on more than one occasion. My original plan was to merely sing 2 pieces: Orange Claw Hammer and Big-Eyed Beans from Venus. However, after viewing the set list voted on by the other members, it was apparent that more vocals would be needed.

This became a bit of a bone of contention, as no one was sure whether I could actually sing at all, or whether my voice would fit, having not heard me on this material. We also were well aware of the fact that perhaps faithful fans would find our performance of vocals an outright travesty, and shun us entirely. After the rehearsal/recording, the fears of whether I could actually perform the material were alleviated, but there was still the “public response” question in our mind. We all had ascertained that two hours’ worth of instrumentals would become a bit tedious — for us and for the audience. We also faced the reality that Don would never be capable of performing again, nor would he want to even if capable. The only other way to hear these songs in their entirety was by someone emulating Don.

This is how I approached the problem: as a vocal tribute to Don, who is one of the greatest and most unique vocalists I have ever heard. Captain Beefheart, the singer, is an amalgam of several blues singers combined with Van Vliet’s own peculiar musical perspective and sense of humour, paired with a great sense of poetic pranksterism. I decided to emulate Van Vliet, rather than sing in my own voice, in the same way he emulated those who inspired him: Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Sun House, and several others.

The first efforts were quite discouraging and as I listened to myself on cassette, I almost thought it to be a hopeless task at times. However, I kept plugging away daily, not giving a lot of thought to my fears, and suddenly, one day as I listened to the cassette, I realised that I had achieved a sound that would work with the music.

During the instrumental first half of the concerts, I found myself in tears during the first few numbers — recalling earlier performances in nostalgic clarity and finding myself emotionally taken with those images. Then, a wonderful calmness would replace this emotion and great happiness that there was still an audience who could appreciate this timeless music. As I gazed over the crowd, I saw a mixture of mature fans and also younger faces, perhaps already familiarised with the music, or perhaps hearing it for the first time. I felt completely relaxed and was able to pace myself in both shows.

Camber Sands ATP performance was interrupted by a fire alarm after about 75% of the show was completed. We had to evacuate the room and upon returning about 20 minutes later, we had a technical problem which required me to sing two a capella pieces which I had rehearsed for several weeks. As I sang, I heard the audience singing along. This was probably the highlight of the evening for me.

Part of me was at Camber Sands during those moments, but another part was viewing a small living room in Woodland Hills, lit only by a table lamp sitting on the floor. I was operating a tape recorder and, as Mark Boston, Bill Harkleroad and Jeff Cotton observed in the dimness of this room, Don created the piece I was now singing in his place. How could I have known then how far and how long I would travel from then until this electric moment.

We drove back that same night to London, my family and I in the van with Elaine and Tim, the rest in the other van being driven by Juan. We arrived late, exhausted from our long day, but elated from the experience.

Shepherd’s Bush Empire required a 4:00 pm setup and soundcheck the following afternoon, so we had the opportunity to sleep in and get some rest. My voice was a little hoarse but relatively strong. The guys all seemed enthusiastic, although a little tired. Afternoons are always the worst for me, and the lowest energy levels of the day generally are in the afternoons — just as we were scheduled to set up.

However, things went well, and the drums went up quickly. Unfortunately, by the time everything was actually running, we had little time to run through any songs and so the harmonica mike was not set correctly which caused feedback problems all evening.

We went to the dressing room and changed. I was now a “veteran” performer in this new and unique dual role of drummer and singer, and had one reasonably successful performance behind me. I am also aware of the fact that it is very easy to become overly-confident and forget about little details that make the performance work, so I silently recalled this and meditated on the whole show, the order, the songs, etc

My wife, daughter, Robert Williams, and I went up to a secluded dressing room and said a little prayer for the show, that we wouldn’t disappoint the fans, would have energy and clarity, etc. and then rejoined the rest. The show went reasonably well, and I decided to move a bit more than I had the night before. It is important to me as a singer to call attention to the players by moving over in their vicinity during key moments in their role. I asked everyone if this would be OK, as I didn’t want to seem to be including myself in “their moment.”

At one point I jumped down to the rail to shake hands with a few of the audience and saw a man named Ben with a zipper on his head. I found this extremely amusing and had a hard time not laughing while singing afterwards. Our last song came, Moonlight in Vermont, and then the encore. We decided to include “Well” in the encore, because it had been well-received in the impromptu performance of the previous evening. I did actually “go blank” for a moment and was corrected by a member of the Alabama Three. Ha.

In the dressing room, I heard voices outside the window and looked down to see several people by the stage door. So, I went out and stood with them, signing autographs and talking. It was a wonderful experience for me. After packing the drums, I went up to a small reception in the bar and reacquainted with several key figures of the last few years. Ed Baxter from LMC was there, as was Mike Barnes, author of “Captain Beefheart.” Colin Minchin, sporting a new beard, who will edit the documentary, was sitting with Elaine, I met many new faces that night, all of which seemed to meld into an overwhelming team of support. I found myself again emotionally touched by the moment.

I truly give thanks to each of you who were in the audience for this honour and privilege and hope to see you again soon in the near future. Thanks to all of you from myself and the other members. Special thanks to Barry Hogan and Helen Cottage, whose efforts made this possible. Also to Elaine Shepherd, who actually sparked the flame that brought this whole project into a reality and inspired me to continue when I was discouraged.

© John French 2003

1 Comment

  1. This has been great reading so much info. on John French, Zappa and Beefheart. I also am a drummer from AV High I played in the rock band Smirenoffs in 1965-67. The band played the first teen town at the Antelope Valley Fair.(a big deal at the time) it’s great reading about all the desert rat musicians. Some of you made it some of us didn’t. Keep on keepin on.

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