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Not Fade Away December 25, 2009

Posted 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.


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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1. martincraig - December 26, 2009

Wahey! Yeehah! But before I get to that, because pantomimes are a dim but amusing memory for me & I’ve never unwound enough to get into local rural activities to the extent that you have, r’speck due. My main contribution to this remote Borders landscape is to rescue sheep & lambs in various stages of distress, but I’m also a First Responder, the person my neighbours are most likely to see beating on their chests if they’re having a near-death experience. Probably not the best way to become the life & soul of the fells, maybe pantomimes and sheep festivals are a better idea.

But you jogged two stunning memories for me; bumping into The Captain with John Peel on a Newcastle street corner in the 1970s & seeing the astounding show later that evening, where Mr Van Vleit was, if anything, slightly eclipsed by the demonic stage-prowling and growling bass of Rockette Morton. Thinking back, he must have had an early radio system to be so mobile, while the rest of us were tripping over curly leads. After that night, our then 3 year old’s favourite nursery rhyme went, “E-e-e-e-l-l-a G-u-u-r-r-u-u”, which of course makes it hard for him to fit into normal society as a fully-functioning adult.

Then seeing the Dead play a five-hour show (with a 30 minute onstage toke-ing break) where I almost filled two C120 cassettes and used two sets of batteries to capture a heavily distorted record of the event. I’m a rhythm guitarist, not a widdler (as Mandelson might have said if his parents had bought him a guitar – but then no, look at StratMan Blair) so watching Phil Lesh close-up for so long must have taught me something. Except that he looked like my fucking landlord, which was really distracting because the rent was due.

So, great blog, Mark, it made my day. Enjoy what’s left of the single malt & mince pies & keep ’em coming.


markswill - December 27, 2009

Yee hah indeed, Martin.

I also saw the Capt several times: initially at Frank Freeman’s School of Dancing in Kidderminster (honest) – also with J. Peel – which was something of a mid-fuck since what I was used to at the time were Chicken Shack, Family, Peter Green etc. But in the late 70s he did three straight nights at the Whisky a’Go-Go which were I think his last live gigs and were truly, truly mind-blowing (I saw all three). The Dead I only saw once at the L.A. Forum which was a slight let-down because Pig Pen was clearly, er, unwell and Garcia not at his best but still ten times superior to anything else at the time (except, possibly, Little Feat). Happy daze.

2. WTK - December 26, 2009

The Captain; the Scene. Maybe late 1972 in Albert’s Hall. A panolpy of R&R’ers: Floyd, Stones, occasional Beatle, a Clapton, the others; all stoned and waiting to see the Captain’s historic appearance. Lights down. Single Klieg. Ballerina enters stage right trotting 12 minutes of Swan Lake. Audience confused, bewildered, emabarrassed, silent, wondering if the blotter acid switched the ticket. Finished with a smattering of hesitant applause and shuffling, THEN suddenly, Rockette Head Morton bursts stage right, duck-walking and strumming, and yes, the Captain enters, snickers loudly, and once again mind-f*cks the cream of Rock and Roll. Brilliance…

markswill - December 27, 2009

Brilliance indeed… but I always thought you were a Brittany Spears man, Terry?

3. Pete - December 27, 2009

Thanks Mark, nice to be pointed towards some relative (these days) musical obscurity. I find myself instinctively avoiding most blues based US rock (my heart leans towards the song “Can blue men sing the whites) but it is always interesting to listen to the older music and to reflect that what I am really avoiding is the plethora of wannabes who followed these old dudes. The music that inspired countless dummty dummty dummty plodding strolls through the real, or imagined if you lived outside the US, midwest does have an energy and excitement that still comes across. Beefheart, The Grateful Dead and their contemporaries were still shaping and playing with the form at the time. These days the whole genre seems like an exercise in karaoke.

I did a bit of trawling on the net (or is that with a net?) and fished out a bunch of Grateful Dead live performances. Now I expect there is nothing a muso likes more than to be asked, “which live show was that then? Was it at the Spectrum, The Springfield Civic Center, the Olympic Center, or The Hampton Coliseum? Was it at Colt Park, or the Deer Creek Music Center etc etc etc….?” to send him hurling towards the vinyl mountain. They got around a bit those drug fuelled crazies! So which version is yours?

On the subject of extraordinary rhythm guitar playing, might I recommend the dexterity of Gabriella, one half of duo Rodrigo & Gabriella who’s acoustic playing sounds like most of the backing sections of the Gypsy Kings or Calexico, or dare I say, The Dead put together. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9_UdD6eXl4&feature=related or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9KBgg-hrtyo&feature=fvw

4. markswill - December 27, 2009

Love that line, “These days the whole genre seems like an exercise in karaoke”, Pete and it’s so true.

The ‘Live Dead’ recordings rather infuriatingly are not linked to specific performances. All that’s printed on the sleeve is that they are “selections taken from recordings made live at Winterland (SF), Manhattan Centre and Fillmore East (NYC)” and the absence of applause tends to confirm my own suspicion that they were heavily re-mixed. Still fantastic, though.

5. Martin Harrison - January 2, 2010

I save my Grateful Dead music for special days. I don’t know when they’ll be, but a couple of times a year is good, and I wouldn’t like to use them as background. In 1970-something, they were two hours late getting to the stage at AllyPally, and we all waited, loomed over by the floor-to-ceiling speaker stacks. Eventually, they were not very good – but I’m glad I went.
No need for further comment on the music, or the later lateness of Jerry Garcia. See Grateful Dawg and weep. And don’t get me going on Lowell George by mentioning Little Feat – hey Mark, how you scoffed when I went to see them at the long-lost Rainbow!
I don’t think I’ve ever been bothered enough to be pedantic, despite a regular and uplifting cycling habit, but my fave bass player of all time is Phil Lesh. A bit like George Harrison musically – you’re not really aware of what he’s doing because it fits so seamlessly in to the music – concentrate on his playing and search for ego over matter and you won’t hear anything.
Bob Weir’s rhythm playing on’t Dead’s ‘Goin down the road’, isn’t too difficult to fathom. The toon is played in E, and from what I can hear, Bob has a capo on the 7th fret, is barring an A chord shape across the 9th and adding the usual lower string fiddlings while Jerry does the open string lead underneath.
As to the question of books, I’m rather too frazzled by a two-day losing battle with a wayward central heating system to comment, but could I add the word ‘Libraries’?
Thank you, and go forth.

markswill - January 3, 2010

One of the side-effects of early onset Alzheimers is the inability to read sleeve notes, never mind jog the bloody memory, hence my shameful confusion betweem the Dead’s bassist, Mr P. Lesh and their actual rhythm-ist, Bob Weir (who’s not-bad solo album, ‘Ace’, I was listening to only last night). Interestingly, Martin’s cool riposte was the first to spot the gaffe. Morover he then goes to to examine the theory behind my daft confusion as to fingerwork which may be even better explained by having engaged the ‘mono’ button when I was going ga-ga over the toons in question: switching back to stereo with Weir on the left and Garcia on the right it all became, quite literally, clear.

And did I really berate you for seeing the might Feat? Oh the shame of it.

As for libraries: my local one is more of a dog-eared multi-media sub-teen knocking shop than a place where one can browse and borrow books. And it’s only open for ten minutes a week.

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