Thursday, June 23, 2011

June 23: Captain Beefheart, "When Big Joan Sets Up"

Artist: Captain Beefheart
Song: "When Big Joan Sets Up"
Album: Trout Mask Replica
Year: 1969

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When speaking of a handful of acts throughout the history of recorded music, one must be very careful in both what you say, as well as how you say it.  This is due to the fact that the performers in question have become such icons, and gained such fervent followings, that even the slightest mis-speaking can lead to a cavalcade of disgruntled fans.  Though one can certainly think up a handful of bands that have garnered such dedication, it is often within the slightly lesser-known acts of such esteem where the most passionate fans reside.  While he may not seem to fall into the category with other acts that require such delicate reverance, those who "get" Captain Beefheart are exceptionally protective of his unique, often misunderstood genius.  The fact that he is nothing short of a musical genius is not something one can debate, as upon hearing any of his absolutely mind-blowing records, this statement becomes beyond reproach, and one can argue that he was one of only a few artists who truly saw music in a completely unique manner.  Even the question of which Captain Beefheart record is his definitive moment can be disputed, and yet one cannot understate the brilliance and importance of his iconic 1969 record, Trout Mask Replica.  The album itself shows nearly every side of Captain Beefheart's personality and talent, and there is perhaps no song that better sums up his controlled madness than 1969's "When Big Joan Sets Up."

Released during the period where the psychedelic movement was at its apex, "When Big Joan Sets Up" seems to completely stand in the face of every musical norm until that point.  However, it is the wildly experimental sound of the music that makes it absolutely fitting during the time in which it was first unleashed onto the general public.  In many ways, "When Big Joan Sets Up" feels as if you enter the song part-way though, as it does not follow any sort of tradition, with the opening notes spinning wildly from the onset.  There is so much going on, that one must listen to the song a few times to be able to grasp even some of the musical madness with which they are surrounded.  The guitars of Bill Harkleroad and Jeff Cotton are as distinctive as any ever recorded, and yet there is a certain "twang" to them that almost resembles the common tone heard in the music of The Grateful Dead.  Yet that is the only similarity to any of their peers, as the band quickly infuses elements of jazz, funk, and almost every other musical form.  Bassist Mark Boston and drummer John French manage to keep the group locked into a very strict pace, and it is in their playing that one can begin to find the form in what seems like musical chaos.  It is elements like the seemingly untamed sound of Victor Hayden's clarinet that make "When Big Joan Sets Up" even more "out there," and yet when one takes the entire musical work in a single thought, it is nothing short of a stunning fusion of rock, jazz, and psychedelic genius.

Adding to the almost schizophrenic feel of the song, the vocals of Captain Beefheart are as scattered and uninhibited as anywhere in his entire catalog.  As soon as he begins his vocal performance, there is no mistaking who is singing, as Beefheart possesses one of the most instantly recognizable voices in history, and the gruff tone with which he delivers the lines manages to rise slightly above the anarchic music over which he sings.  His performance is almost frenzied, but not in the unsettling manner that usually comes with such energy.  There is a calm, purposeful sense to each line he delivers, and this helps to further make order of the musical onslaught that is "When Big Joan Sets Up."  One can even find a rather unique melody along with this rhythm, and when one reaches this point of understanding, the true "magic" of Captain Beefheart's compositions becomes clear.  The track features one of his most clear and pointed lyrics, though there is also his usual sense of humor lacing the entire song.  On "When Big Joan Sets Up," Captain Beefheart spins a tale of a rather rotund woman, and yet it is the odd establishments and similes he uses, along with the beat-poetry-like rhythm that sets the song aside from his other works.  With lines like, "...she pulled up her blouse, n' compared her navel to the moon..." one can find his brand of humor, and yet Beefheart also turns the tale on those who have shown up to watch, questioning why they find enjoyment in voyeurism.  It is this duality of words that makes the lyrics of "When Big Joan Sets Up" so intriguing, and they work perfectly with Captain Beefheart's underlying sense of mischief in his vocal performance.

On "When Big Joan Sets Up," Captain Beefheart also shows off his instrumental talents, as many of the sharp, wild noises that fill out the track were played by him.  From almost primitive bleats from a saxophone to a musette, Beefheart makes as much of a statement with his instrumental work as he does through his unmistakable vocals.  This is also where one can see the musicality within his singing, and this completes the picture to the entire range of his distinctive talents.  It is the fact that both he and his entire "Magic Band" are able to maintain order within what first appears to be nothing more than musical chaos where one can understand just how talented a group of musicians were involved in the recording.  Furthermore, one cannot overlook the fact that the albums' producer was none other than Frank Zappa, and one can only assume that he aided greatly in keeping the form within the musical mayhem found on "When Big Joan Sets Up."  The entire album is in many ways the very essence of experimental music, as even though some may take time to fully appreciate it, one cannot deny the musicality that runs throughout the record.  On each track, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band allow their musical imaginations to run uninhibited across the song, and this results in some of the most inexplicable moments of musical genius ever captured on tape.  Though it is often overlooked for the level of depth and sheer brilliance found within, there is no other song in history that can even remotely compare to Captain Beefheart's 1969 masterpiece, "When Big Joan Sets Up."

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