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The Roots of Captain Beefheart [Digipak]


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Performer Notes
  • Tributee: Captain Beefheart.
  • Liner Note Author: Dave Henderson.
  • In 1982, MTV rejected Captain Beefheart's music video "Ice Cream for Crow," a gloriously quirky pantomime shot in the Mojave Desert, featuring heroically cryptic lyrics delivered in a rasping voice by a visibly aging character who gesticulated wildly and pulled a lot of exaggerated facial expressions, for Beefheart loved to mug in front of the camera. What turned out to be the last of his many Magic Bands backed him with appropriate vigor, gyrating at full-tilt according to Beefheart's exacting specifications. In grateful communion with precisely those qualities that made the wimps at MTV so uneasy, legions of devoted Beefheart fans maintain steadfast devotion to him and his musical works. Beefheart's entire approach to composition and performance was informed by a diverse swarm of inspirations, from absurdist theater, experimental poetics, and a sort of psychedelic Dadaism, to Delta and Chicago blues, African-American pop, and edgy creative modern jazz. Released a little over a year before his passing in December 2010, Snapper's The Roots of Captain Beefheart presents a convincing mosaic of influences, drawing upon the work of 15 artists who together embody a fairly broad range of styles and genres. For vocal texture, the logical choices are Howlin' Wolf, Big Joe Williams, Sunnyland Slim, and Blind Willie Johnson, who was also conceivably the source of Beefheart's life-long fascination with slide guitar. Muddy Waters is an indispensable part of the equation, as is Bo Diddley, whose "Diddy Wah Diddy" was among the first covers that Beefheart chose to record. Further ground in the early blues root strata is covered well enough with Tommy Johnson, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Blind Willie McTell, each perfectly in tune with his own private wavelength. How Charley Patton got left out of the lineup is anybody's guess. Another gap in the weave of this collection is created by the absence of Robert Pete Williams, whose "Grown so Ugly" was expertly interpreted by Beefheart & His Magic Band on the album Safe as Milk.
  • "Story Untold" by the Nutmegs and "When You Dance" by the Turbans are appropriate samplings of doo wop vocal harmony, which young Beefheart listened to avidly and emulated in his own way early on in his recording career, as did his longtime friend Frank Zappa and the original members of the Mothers of Invention. An excellent example of Beefheart operating under the influence of '50s R&B is "So Glad," by far the most traditional-sounding track on Safe as Milk. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this compilation lies in the bursts of modern jazz that the producers were careful to include. The somewhat abrasive intensity of "Bakai" as recorded by John Coltrane in 1957 stems directly from the fact that the song was composed by Cal Massey in response to the kidnapping, torture, and murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955. In light of this, note that Beefheart made his own disarmingly skewed if utterly direct reference to the U.S. civil rights movement by quoting from Steve Reich's "Come Out" during "Moonlight in Vermont" on the album Trout Mask Replica. Ornette Coleman's "The Invisible" brings to the table another artist whose admirable absorption in his own ideas and methodology compares nicely with Beefheart's often aggressive individualism. The fact that Beefheart regularly composed at the piano verifies the logic of Thelonious Monk's "Monk's Dream" and Cecil Taylor's "Song," wherein Steve Lacy's soprano saxophone totemically references Beefheart's much more anarchic handling of that instrument. Perhaps a cut from Anthony Braxton's "For Alto" would have been in order, along with a visitation from Albert Ayler. As it stands, informed selection and the contrast of mingled genres greatly enhance this tribute to one of the truly unique figures in 20th century music. ~ arwulf arwulf
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