Captain Beefheart / Dr. John at the Sports Arena

By Scot Kutina

Exit, May, 1974

On Saturday, April 19, the circus came to Toledo, and I felt that familiar tug at my soul. With the circus came Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, and Dr. John the gris-gris, gumbo, ya-ya Night Tripper himself, accompanied by a very disappointing group from the Detroit-Ann Arbor area, the Rockets.

The Rockets I have seen in at least 500 incarnations over the past five years. Some better, some worse. This time I’m sorry to say that it seems worse than better. I sometimes think the problem is that they all come from the same mold; the oil pits, greasy spoons and assembly lines of Detroit. This sort of environment does not leave a whole lot open for creativity and innovation, with such people as John Sinclair and Pete Andrews as co-managers, this group should have two solid, creative people working them, helping them. But instead, the opposite seems to be happening. The creative level seems to be at zero, rock bottom.

For instance, what are generally the two strongest points of any good rock group, the lead guitar and the vocals were sadly lacking, along with the balance between the four musicians. “High Energy” is no excuse for poor musicianship. Perhaps the only bright spot in the group is pianist Mark Marcano, who occasionally broke through the noise with some good rock and roll piano. And while their musical technique was zero or worse, their level of material was not much higher. Their set consisted of pretty much of the same 1950’s rock and roll tunes that seem to be the standard repertoire of every rock and roll band that has ever played the Detroit-Ann Arbor area, with the notable exceptions of the Amboy Dukes, SRC and the MC5. What made it even worse were the scattered originals (very poor), and some inane “Let’s get it on” comments from drummer-lead vocalist John Badanjek. I was bored.

Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band stood out like a lighthouse in a stormy sea. With a certain sort of wacky insanity and professional polish, where even the occasional irregularities did occur, the differences between them and the Rockets were painfully obvious.

His entire backup group shown like diamonds among cut glass, with one Dean Smith on tenor saxophone and flute, a veteran of Glenn Miller's Big Band sound playing his ass off. His tenor soloes screamed with all the insanity of a Charlie Parker or an Eddie Harris, and the drive of a Cannonball Adderly or Yusef Lateef. His solo on the clarinet to a certain basketball team’s theme song finally brought down the house on such a fine note, that even the youngest one in the place was on his feet trying to drown out his neighbor.

This was my first exposure to the Captain’s brand of magic and mystery, other than a few cuts heard here and there on FM stations; and needless to say, I was quite impressed with what I heard.

Finally, after a rather tedious and boring wait between sets, Dr. John Creaux, alias Mac Rebennack, made his entrance midst a of glitter, gris-gris and feathers. The good Dr. came on like a fresh wind, blowing up out of the Bayou, resplendent in green, yellow and white feathers, charms and vaudeaux sticks, backed by a‘ tight bunch of New Orleans professionals who knew their way around their instruments.

Dr. John is not exactly a slouch when it comes to knowing his stuff either. He is a virtuoso New Orleans ragtime piano player, with chordal dissonances that were outstanding in their harmony and just plain funkiness. He could also do some incredible guitar riffs in minors that would have made the hair of a black cat stand on end. The proof was there as to why he is regarded as one of L.A.’s top recording artists, and one of the most sought after session men in the profession.

Talking with him for a short moment before the concert, I found him a warm personality, with a good sense of humor and a sharp mind. His recording history dates back to the mid ’50’s, where he was an A & R man in Los Angeles for such people as Jimmy Clanton, and in the ’60’s, a producer for the likes of Sonny and Cher before he recorded his own first album, Gris-Gris, in 1968. He is a fine entertainer and a gentleman to boot.

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