At first glance, Beefheart without Beefheart would appear to be a risky proposition. After all, the Captain's vaunted three-octave rasp/howl and his surrealist nonsense lyrics were always the main attraction, and his tyrannical control of bandmembers and arrangements was legendary. The music itself often seemed fragmented and skeletal, designed only as a backdrop for Beefheart's rants. Nonetheless, Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) was much more than a neo-beat poet with musical accompaniment. In his head were not just words but also melodies and jagged, funky rhythms that he worked hard to communicate to his musicians. In turn, he empowered his groups to take the music in new directions and participate in the creative process, if only because he couldn't read music himself and often described what he was hearing in vague, metaphorical terms. So it turns out (and, this CD is prime evidence) that when you take Beefheart away from Beefheart, you can still come up with something rather special. Credit for the success of this venture goes to guitarist Gary Lucas and especially to alto saxophonist and arranger Phillip Johnston. Aside from his fearless eclecticism and technical expertise, Lucas has the advantage of having been a member of one of Beefheart's last working bands. He understands Beefheart's sound and his logic; Lucas' spiky, warped slide guitar is a strong link to the original songs, most of which featured the work of two guitarists in tandem. However, Johnston is the real genius of this session, essentially writing charts for a horn section (trumpet, trombone, baritone, and his own alto) plus the wildly improvising Lucas and a rhythm section of Richard Dworkin on drums and Jesse Krakow on bass. Johnston smoothes out the stuttering Beefheart pulse, giving the music a basic blues-rock feel and sometimes, more weirdly, the sound of a crazed college marching band (e.g., "Abba Zaba"). Others pieces, such as "Kandy Korn" and "Suction Prints," even project a bit of a New Orleans second-line strut, with contrapuntal interaction and hints of primitive funk or even Dixieland. Most of the 13 pieces on the CD are three to seven minutes long, but all participants have the opportunity to contribute brief but blistering solos. Joe Fiedler, on trombone, takes particular advantage of his opportunities. Remarkably, these instrumentals hold onto Beefheart's obsessive strangeness, which is really the best tribute that Lucas, Johnston, and the rest of the Fast 'n' Bulbous crew could have given him. This CD is ragged but right, all the way.
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AllMusic Review by William Tilland