Fans of the obscure and more challenging forms of Rock and Roll such as Progressive Rock or even Avante Garde Rock and Roll should, no doubt, be familiar with the name Don Van Vliet or his alter ego, Captain Beefheart. As Captain Beefheart, Van Vliet created some of the more unusual songs and albums in the sixties, seventies and early eighties. In the time period, the Captain created thirteen albums (with the album Bat Chain Puller being released posthumously in 2012, two years after Don Van Vliet passed away).
While it has been seven years since the passing of Don Van Vliet, there are still plenty of people who call upon his music as an influence to their own. Because of that, it should come as no surprise that someone would create a new album that pays tribute to the memory of Van Vliet and the music he left behind.
The World of Captain Beefheart is a new album created by Gary Lucas, a guitarist who spent time helping Don Van Vliet create some of his later albums. It is Lucas that creates the music for the album. Helping Lucas out with the creation of the new album is singer Nona Hendryx who has a history creating some very original material of her own as well as backing up people like Patti LaBelle. As you listen to the album, you can tell that Hendryx’s voice seems just perfect for interpreting the musical direction of the lyrics to the songs from Van Vliet. Together, the two artists and a few of their friends have taken some of the best music from Captain Beefheart’s musical library and compiled those songs into the album called The World of Captain Beefheart.
As there are thirteen albums to pick from in order to create the playlist for the tribute, a decision as to what would be used had to be made. Taking a look at the playlist for the new tribute album, Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx have focused on some of Captain Beefheart’s more well-known albums. Along with other albums, the songs for this release were taken largely from Clear Spot and Safe as Milk which the songs from those albums account for about half of the release.
Starting off the tribute album is the song “Sun Zoom Spark”. One of the more Avante Garde of Captain Beefheart’s compositions, “Sun Zoom Spark” features a rather difficult rhythm to the music, creating one of the more interesting songs in Van Vliet’s song collection. As far as Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx’s version of the song is concerned, the duo does a good job of interpreting the track with just enough Avante Garde feeling to satisfy those looking for that type of feeling. The resulting track lives up to the original.
One of the more commercial tracks on the release is “My Head Is My Only House Unless It Rains”. With this track, Captain Beefheart created a track that blends Jazz and Rock and Roll together to create a track with a gentle pace to it. The version here from Lucas and Hendryx contains a little bit more Jazz influence as a result of Hendryx’s vocal delivery. The quick two-and-a-half minute playtime makes for a great single for radio.
As you go through the album, you encounter a lot of different musical styles. The track “I’m Glad” features a sound that brings to mind something from the band Tommy James and the Shondells. More specifically, the track would fit right alongside that band’s “Crystal Blue Persuasions”. This is one of the more arranged tracks on the album as the original had more of a Motown feel to it. This album version from Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx may actually blow the original version away.
Another standout track on The World of Captain Beefheart is the song “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles”. This version of the song finds Lucas and Hendryx slightly departing from the original feel of the piece for something a bit different. Although still containing a lot of the original feel of the piece, this version seems to contain a bit of Frank Zappa influence to the music. While the Van Vliet influence is there, the arrangement favors Zappa’s way of playing. Having that Zappa influence, while probably unintentional, isn’t all that unusual since Van Vliet and Zappa knew each other and collaborated with each other over the years.
Putting the album together, it was important that the release was a good representation of the works of the writing style of Don Van Vliet. That meant including some of the more challenging tracks from Captain Beefheart as well as the more commercial of his songs. One of the challenging tracks from Beefheart is the song “Sugar and Spikes”. The constant changing of the beat and the slightly off-key playing from multi-instrumentalist Gary Lucas creates a track that slips into Prog-Rock style. In fact, at times in the track, the music will remind the listener of something from the band Gentle Giant. With the track having such a challenging rhythmic pattern, vocalist Nona Hendryx does a fine job handling the changes that are thrown her way as she sings.
Speaking of singing: For most of the tracks on this release, vocalist Nona Hendryx’s voice works well with the music of the songs to produce a good take on the vocals even though she doesn’t sound much like Captain Beefheart. On the track “Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do,” however, Hendryx’s vocals seem a little hoarser than on the rest of the album. So much so, the listener can almost imagine Beefheart singing the lyrics to this one. As far as the music to the track is concerned, a stronger Blues influence shows up. With this track, you can hear a definite nod to the early days of Rock and Roll when the Blues were more of a part of the music. With the very evident Blues feel to the track, “Sure ‘Nuff ‘N Yes I Do” could easily have been Don Van Vliet’s tribute to one of the major building blocks that helped to build Rock and Roll.
The World of Captain Beefheart comes to an end with the track “Tropical Hot Dog Night”. In true Captain Beefheart fashion, this track has a very warped sense of humor as far as the lyrics are concerned. And with the definite sexual innuendos that flow through the track, the female vocals from Nona Hendryx seem strangely and sadly out of place. This is one of the weirdest tracks on the album and one that definitely screams “Captain Beefheart”.
One of the things that fans of Captain Beefheart will immediately notice when putting on The World of Captain Beefheart is that the tracks on the album stay pretty true to the original versions of the songs. While they wanted to create an album that paid homage to Don Van Vliet, one thing the duo of Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx seemed to not want to do was to alienate fans of Captain Beefheart. Because of that, the resulting tracks that make up the release interpret the music of Van Vliet but do not “reinvent the wheel”. The songs used for this release are close to the original arrangements while still breathing new life into the songs.
If you have been a fan of Captain Beefheart or are now just coming to become aware of the artist and the music he left behind when he passed away in 2010, The World of Captain Beefheart is a great place to start before you go off and find the original recordings. And if you have the original albums from Captain Beefheart, this album is well worth the time to seek out so you can add it into your library of his music.
For a taste of some of the music off of The World of Captain Beefheart, check out the song “Sure ‘Nuff ‘n’ Yes I Do” by Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx.
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