[alert_box type=”info”]This review was written by Mark Leviton and appeared in the 27th February 1981 edition of ‘BAM'[/alert_box]
“You either love it or hate it,” explained the guy standing behind me to his wary girlfriend during Captain Don’s blistering set. “It’s the weirdest music I’ve ever heard, but I love it.” I don’t think the friend was convinced.
Captain Beefheart certainly is an original, and with his new band (guitarists Jeff Tepper and “Midnight Hat Size” Snyder, bass and keyboard man Eric Feldman and drummer Robert Williams) he’s launched on a retrenching operation, basically abandoning his sometime commercial attempts and heading for the woods of experimentation again. From the moment he walked onstage with Feldman’s roaring bass solo as fanfare and stuck the bell of his soprano sax completely over the microphone, an adder consuming a peach, Beefheart commanded respect. With Williams hitting a groove and the guitarists blasting off-balance riffs at each other, lurching around Don’s stationary figure, the effect is somehow intimate, an invasion of your mind.
There were several new songs, and quite a bit of material from Doc at the Radar Station (including a harsh, cataclysmic “Hot Head”), mixed with a handful of favorites from previous incarnations of the Magic Band: a playful “Nowadays a Woman’s Gotta Hit a Man”; a dark, brutal “China Pig”; a lengthy and complex reworking of “Big Eyed Beans from Venus”; Don, having problems with the house sound system, seemed ready to burst at times, as when he took off his hat and whacked Williams’ crash cymbal during “Nowadays” or bashed the hell out of his Chinese gongs during a long, jam-like offering at the end of the show. At other times he was remarkably subtle, squeezing imaginary breasts during a funny, imaginative and theatrical “I Wanna Find a Woman That’ll Hold My Big Toe Till I Have to Go”; standing aside while Feldman played a delicate mellotron part in the middle of “Ashtray Heart”.
When Don caught fire, he pushed the band into some other region of music. Denny Walley came on to handle the guitar part on “China Pig”; a straight blues number from Trout Mask Replica that Don sang with heart, blowing his harmonica with fervor as well. During “Sue Egypt” Don read the lyrics off huge cards, but growled and pushed until Tepper and Feldman were ricocheting around like metal pinballs. There were also solo moments, like Tepper’s ingenious rendering of the difficult instrumental “A Carrot is as Close as a Rabbit Gets to a Diamond”. The band also sparingly used a technique I’d not seen them employ before, a long, slow fade-out on several tunes that added a bitter-sweet flavor and a touch of irony.
The only quibble is that Don has developed his own set of cliches, unlike what you might hear elsewhere but recurring too many times. There were moments where the complexities seemed boring, the unexpected turned mundane through overuse. The band worked just as hard, but the effect, especially in the middle of the nearly two-hour set, was soporific. Still, the show was impressive, and gave evidence that the next album may live up to the high standard re-established by Doc at the Radar Station, the most frightening and beautiful intro to the ’80s yet.