Not Fade Away December 25, 2009Posted by markswill in That's Entertainment.
Sitting here on Xmas Day morning, sun streaming over snow-clad roofs, I had, as trailed, intended to pen a few pithy observations about pantomimes. Topical of course, and especially since I was recently involved in the theatrical triumph that was the Presteigne Players’ An American in Powys.
Ironically typecast as Det. Insp. Slipper of the Yard, mine was a relatively small role amongst a cast of 30 locals ranging in age from under 10 to, well old enough to know better and peppered with a few of the professional thesps who live hereabouts. It was, as ever, good fun and after a few, arguably too few, nerve-wracking rehearsals, all right on the nights. But these annual PP productions are not really trad pantos, for they are custom-written and directed by the modestly brilliant Mary Compton who deftly weaves sharply observed local and national politics into plots that also embrace some of the conventionally hokey boy-gets-girl, good-vs-evil themes and throws in a whole bunch of fun-poking at local characters, mostly just on the right side of benign.
It is testimony to Mary’s skill that each year’s plot is very different and includes a whole raft of rather good songs mostly co-written by her. But she knows her audience (and indeed, cast) well enough to reprise the finale, ‘Presteigne – Home of the Free’ every year. This latter is a quietly remarkable work which fondly takes the piss out of local retail institutions, schools and incomers (which she and most of us are) whilst simultaneously thrusting a lump of pride into the throats of the assembled cast and, certainly by the last chorus, a large chunk of the audience.
Anyway, I was planning to segue from this into a broader treatise on these knockabout theatrics, both community and professional, but when it comes down to it, I haven’t seen a commercial panto since I was a tot and the only community versions I’ve experienced are those I’ve made a fool of myself in here in Presteigne. But the thing of it is, whilst pantos may be have a useful role in bringing disparate elements of society and culture together – albeit fleetingly – what’s far more important is Captain Beefheart, certainly in the lump-in-throat department. Or that’s how it seemed last night.
Don’t know why it is but at this time of year I find myself re-visiting the nooks and crannies of my record collection and PLAYING THEM VERY LOUD and thus it was that I came upon Clear Spot, probably the most commercial of Don Van Vliet’s oeuvre. This has much to do with its producer, Ted Templeman who, in between profitably twiddling the knobs for the Doobie Brothers and Van Halen (!), was charged by Warner Bros. to try and recoup some of their investment in the gloriously unpredictable Captain and his Magic Band. And whilst 1969’s, Frank Zappa produced Trout Mask Replica is generally regarded as the good Captain’s mightiest work, Clear Spot is the best entry point. Reason being that Templeman, whilst he might not’ve always understood what the hell was going on musically, separates and lifts the individual instruments sufficiently from the dense rhythms favoured, nay, mandated by Van Vliet to the point where the listener can fully marvel at the mastery of those involved.
THOSE CRAZY RHYTHMS
Students and fans of the Beefheart legend, of which I am unashamedly one, will know that the clearly but brilliantly half-mad Van Vliet would lock his band members into rehearsals until he’d schooled them into performing each crazed, highly complex composition to his satisfaction, which occasionally took weeks and accounted for a rather high staff turnover, especially in the rhythm sections. Clear Spot therefore sees ex-Mothers on Invention Roy Estrada take over from Rockette Morton on bass (though Morton moves to rhythm guitar) and newcomer Artie Tripp on drums, and it’s an ensemble that elevates ‘cooking’ to a new level. In particular there’s Tripp’s 5/4 intro to ‘Nowadays a Woman’s Gotta Hit a Man’ which is overlaid with Morton’s 7/8 (I think) riff before Don comes in with his acid harmonica and an anonymous horn section lazily prefacing (in 4/4 time) the utterly wonderful Zoot Horn Rollo (Bill Harkeload) cutting a swathe through it all with his typically vicious lead guitar. My favourite track – and it’s hard to pick just one – has to be ‘Circumstances’ which whilst Don’s lyrics and harmonica clearly reflect his blue’s roots, are simply a feint for a rocking opus that belies the numerous and almost impossible contrapuntal rhythms he throws into the pot.
And talking of impossible, this same trawl through my vinyl back catalogue inevitably lit on the Grateful Dead and specifically, the double Live Dead album (although the title appears nowhere on the sleeve or labels). In my view rockist scribblers too easily forget their unparalleled ability to create an intoxicating musical weft from apparently incongruent elements. Certainly they share this with Capt. Beefheart’s Magic Band but the difference is that the Dead did it best live and usually when they were out of their heads on acid. If you need evidence of their enduring might, check side two on disc two where ‘Not Fade Away’ merges effortlessly into ‘Going Down the Road Feeling Bad’.
It’s here that the late, much lamented Garcia galvanises the troops into another throat lumping jag and if you’re not bobbing and swaying like a fool by the time he rips out his second solo in ‘Road’, then you clearly need therapy. But 34 seconds into this magisterial 61 second opus (I know, I’ve timed it, I’m a saddo), something truly extraordinary happens: Phil Lesh a great but perhaps not seminal rhythm player begins doing something which I can’t see that between them he and Garcia had enough fingers to execute. It’s rhythm guitar but not as we know it, and combined with Garcia’s soaring, million-miles-a-minute yet note perfect solo, it’s simply transformative… as is the entire track. I must’ve played it fifteen times last night and I still don’t know how they did it, but it makes the likes of Beck and Clapton and even more modern plank-spankers such as Sonny Landreth and Buddy Whittington, whilst technically exceptional, sound undernourished and soulless. (Sorry Frank).
One thing is clear however, with Van Vliet retired to painting in the Californian desert and Garcia long, er, dead, we will not hear their musical like again.
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