Pork Chop Blue Around the Rind – Fast ‘n’ Bulbous
Cuneiform Records 205
Hot on the heels of Yo Miles's Upriver comes another tribute CD, and on the same label to boot. So let me mention one point which I left out of last month’s Upriver review: tribute bands make sense live. I’ve seen the Zappa cover group Project Object twice, and as satisfying as it is to sit at home with headphones, it’s a whole different kind of pleasure to be in the same room with other fans experiencing the music. I’m sure that Fast ‘n’ Bulbous would be equally fun, and, with Captain Beefheart’s music perhaps even more than Zappa, the physical demands of the music are so strange that seeing people play it could be worthwhile in itself.
A studio CD, though, loses those advantages. Without that, we have alternate takes on a body of music by a composer whose music was rawer than Zappa's, but whose control of his musicians was even more absolute. Fast 'n' Bulbous boasts one Beefheart vet, slide guitar maven Gary Lucas, and, unlike most tribute bands, it has a lineup of players who all could likely have passed an audition with their honoree. That doesn't answer the question of what to do with this music in Beefheart's absence, though, and it's a question that sometimes stymies them on this disc.
For about half of this disc, the Fast 'n' Bulbous strategy is to take advantage of its four-piece brass section and reconceive Beefheart's work as party music. Long on blues that don't quite make it to 12 bars and marches that sometimes trip over the sidewalk, this group is the middle ground between Sun Ra's Arkestra and the Saturday Night Live band. A Beefheart mix CD, though, would give you most of the same things while adding that phenomenal off-key scream and those inimitable trash-can poetics which only Don Van Vliet could provide. And, although this group tries its best not to water down Beefheart’s style, it can’t avoid being more conventional than the Magic Band.
Now and then, this disc tries different approaches, with encouraging results. Three of Beefheart's instrumental miniatures break up the parade vibe, with Lucas reprising his direct-from-the-Captain-to-him feature "Evening Bell," bassist Jesse Krakow delivering "A Carrot Is As Close As A Rabbit Gets To A Diamond" (funny to have a title like that for the prettiest piece here) and the horns taking a new angle on the Trout Mask Replica guitar duet "Dali’s Car." Midway through the disc, the band picks an uncharacteristically open-ended Beefheart song, "When It Blows Its Stacks," as a vehicle for a bit of stretching out. Lucas, Krakow and drummer Richard Dworkin stay near the terrain occupied by Zoot Horn Rollo, Rockette Morton and Drumbo, but it’s here that Fast n’ Bulbous comes closest to being a Beefheart-influenced distinct improvising unit rather than a Beefheart replication outfit.
Otherwise… well, if good intentions and a wise choice of influence could move units, Fast n' Bulbous would have a million seller on their hands. And if they come to town, I'll mark my calendar. However, I have a feeling that this CD is headed for my "reference" box rather than a spot on my "A" shelves next to Trout Mask Replica and the Spotlight Kid/Clear Spot two-for-one CD.