Nona Hendryx & Gary Lucas
The World of Captain Beefheart
Of all the music world's Venn Diagrams, I would have expected there to be no overlap between that of LaBelle and Captain Beefheart, but here is this album, a lone dot on that curious netherworld.
Some background: Captain Beefheart was the psudonym for Don Van Vliet, a wild painter, blues howler, compatriot of Frank Zappa, brutal abuser of his (perhaps because of his abuse) ridiculously tight Magic Band of which Gary Lucas is a survivor and continuer of the curious music he made with the Captain who stopped recording in 1980 and left this dull world a decade later. The key document is TROUT MASK REPLICA, a video of which you can suffer below.
Nona Hendryx was a member of Labelle, the genre-shifting girl-group turned woman-power trio of the 60s-70s most notably responsible for "Lady Marmalade." Their work is worth seeking out.
Gary Lucas has made a career out of restaging his late taskmaster's music in small rock groups and large scale orchestras, and in one of those forms Nona Hendryx was enlisted, one guesses as a novelty. A long celebrated R&B and jazz vocalist, Ms. Hendryx's versatile gift is an oddly weird fit for this music.
Beefheart's plaintive soul croon "I'm Glad", a doo wop number off his first LP SAFE AS MILK is rendered in luxurious velvet by Ms. Hendryx and when I heard it, I was like oh, of course. Her graceful reading of "My Head Is My Only House When it Rains" reveals the river of song that flows beneath troll Beffheart's bridge.
Even the beatnik proto-rapism of Beefheart's "Sun Zoom Spark" makes sense in their hands. The Captain's cocksure swagger is only strengthened coming out of Ms. Hendryx's mouth. She growls, commands, come-ons. "When it Blows It Stacks" is rendedred in a Zeppelin gone disco (something I wish had happened) wide strokes. It is glorious and lethal.
Nona Hendryx is a natch for Beefheart's boho blues shtick since she is an actual blues singer. The affectations of CB's "Sure 'Nuff 'N Yes I Do" are rendered here with actual authority. Also, Captain Beefheart had a notorious wide vocal range stretching several octaves. So does Nona, but with a sharpshooters accuracy for the pitches in between.
The beauty of this record is that it is still difficult listening. Much of Nona Hendryx's career has been involved with getting the party started, whereas this one could clear the room. (See the oddball The Smithsonian Institute Blues" or "Suction Prints") But then there are fabulous amalgams like the tilted reggae reading of "Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles" twisted enough to play on latenight college radio (if that still exists) yet groovy enough to be piped in at brunch (I know brunch still exists). I have a number of friends who hate Captain Beefheart, for myriad reasons. Here's hoping I can get them lost in his groove, licking the wild maramalde off his toast.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com
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