Captain Beefheart festival weekend: how Liverpool celebrated a 20th Century visionary

Pale Rider at District

Pale Rider at District

The remarkable Captain Beefheart was commemorated across Liverpool with a programme of live music, poetry, talks and exhibitions and Getintothis’ Jamie Bowman went fast and bulbous for it all.

“Liverpool is the number one centre of the universe when it comes to Captain Beefheart fans,” says former Magic Band member and keeper of the Beefheart flame Gary Lucas at one point as he addresses a packed Bluecoat auditorium.

Looking around at the gathering of heads that help make this three day celebration of the music, art and poetry of Don Van Vliet such a resounding success it’s hard to disagree.

Devised by independent curator Kyle Percy, working in collaboration with poet Chris McCabe and Bluecoat’s Artistic Director Bryan Biggs; the programme, which featured music, poetry, a symposium and even a walking tour, seemed to entice and excite all kinds of people from ageing hippies to switched-on students.  At one point I was sitting next to a woman holding a ventriloquist’s dummy. It was that kind of event.

With expectations well and truly whetted by the Magic Band’s appearance at a packed Philharmonic Music Room on Friday night, the faithful convene at the beautiful Bluecoat the next morning for the start- Digging Beefheart: A symposium exploring Beefheart as ‘total artist’.

Developing the theme of seeing Beefheart as a ‘Twentieth Century Visionary’, each panel and discussion examines the breadth of his work and explore how music, visual art, writing and performance overlap and feed each other.

It was the Bluecoat which, 45 years ago, hosted the first ever exhibition of Beefheart’s paintings and as the documents induced in the gallery’s excellent accompanying display reveal although he didn’t sell a single one, a bond between city and artist was formed which remains to this day.

It’s this relationship which is explored with a panel chaired by Sound City’s Becky Ayres where we hear La’s founder Mike Badger recount how a precipitous meeting with Van Vliet was almost entirely responsible for the band’s formation. Stealing Sheep’s Emily Lansley meanwhile reveals how she initially hated Trout Mask Replica after being subjected to it every morning by her over-zealous mum.

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Later we find John Hyatt of The Three Johns chairing a discussion about Beefheart’s continuing legacy alongside aforementioned Magic Band member Lucas and Beefheart’s biographer Mike Barnes.

Lucas’ presence lends the whole weekend a little bit of star quality and his first-hand accounts of Beefheart’s methodology and legendary eccentric behaviour are priceless. “He was very friendly but too sensitive to be around people too long,” claims Lucas. “He was essentially a very shy person who was vulnerable inside.”

The guitarist goes on to lend credence to the rumours about Beefheart’s ESP abilities by claiming he predicted John Lennon’s death and described the physical difficulty when it came to playing Beefheart’s songs. “It was not easy,” he says. “It gave me shooting pains in my hands. It was not easy music to realise and he would add tension by shouting at us.”

More anecdotes about Beefheart’s ‘exploding note theory’ (“play each note as if it has no relation to the preceding or following note”) and recording techniques which included mincing up a piece of groaning wood in the studio and recording a smashed ashtray falling to the floor are manna from heaven for the dedicated fans as is Lucas’ assertion that Beefheart deliberately ate himself fat at one point in order to write a song from a fat person’s point of view or that he was “plotting revenge” on Tom Waits for releasing SwordfishTrombones.

It’s left to Barnes to try and sum up the legacy of Beefheart’s music and his offering that it’s “the idea of unfettered expression, freedom, no boundaries, liberation and being uncompromising” is as good as we hear all weekend.

As day turns to night we get Doped in Stunned Mirages: A Poetic Celebration of Don Van Vliet featuring 13 poets and their responses to a specific Beefheart album.

What follows is a hugely entertaining hour and I’m particularly taken with Vahni Capildeo’s bewildered response to Trout Mask Replica (“I listened to this with my mother who lived in the 60s. She said it made sense”). Jeff Young recounts seeing Beefheart before one of his gigs in Liverpool “looking like a ragged alien contemplating his first encounter with a multi-storey car park” while Zoe Skoulding associates Doc at the Radar Station with nuclear war and primitive electro to great effect.

Saturday’s entertainment closes with a trek up to the Baltic Quarter for Fast N’ Bulbous: A Music Celebration of Captain Beefheart. A superb bill sees a host of Beefheart inspired musicians perform their own original music alongside re-workings of Beefheart songs. Credit to the organisers, who have put together a superb bill which reads as a who’s who of the current scene and must act as one hell of an eye opener to the many older Beefheart fans present.

The Zutons’ Dave McCabe makes an early appearance with his voice sounding in typically fine fettle. A stunning acoustic version of Let Me Go from the Church of Miami album is followed by The Zutons’ hit You Will You Won’t which segues seamlessly into Beefheart’s Drop Out Boogie with nary a chord change. It’s a great moment.

Pale Rider could well be Liverpool’s next rock & roll-driven cab off the rank and their propulsive Verve-like sound impresses young and old alike tonight – particularly in closer One Beat with it’s whirlwind finale. The Cubical, meanwhile, have never hidden their debt to the good Captain and singer Dan Wilson has a ball as he recreates Van Vliet’s growl with a bug-eyed intensity that’s both thrilling and slightly scary. Psycho Comedy’s version of Plastic Factory perhaps comes closest to capturing the sound of West Coast garage rock circa 1966.

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Gary Lucas makes a reappearance and proceeds to perform a spellbinding set of slide guitar and soundscapes that could well be the highlight of the night. Starting with an instrumental version of Sure ‘Nuff ‘N’ Yes I Do, the treat of the evening comes when he picks out the mesmerising intro Jeff Buckley’s Grace which Lucas co-wrote with the pre-fame Buckley in the early 90s. It’s breath-taking and moving in equal measure.

Lucas sticks around to join Liverpool loons aPAtT whose Devo-esque 20 minute set is a manically glorious thing. Their cover of Black Eyed Beans From Venus may well be the reworking of the night too. Strange Collective provide more psych rock thrills with their usual brand of gonzo drunkenness failing to hide what fine tunesmiths they are. Edgar Jones and the Jones round off proceedings with a slick and funky set which betrays the Beefheart influence with Austin Murphy’s honking sax and Jones’ trademark rasp lending grit to their Memphis soul stew.

A grinning Lucas reasserts his belief that Liverpool is where it’s at and we roar our approval.

This whole weekend felt like a very Merseyside musical success and although he may never have sold a painting here, Captain Beefheart’s words and music continue to shape the city’s visual and aural landscape. Consider yourself Booglarized Baby.

Images by Getintothis’ Chris Flack