Pop: Album review - Captain Beefheart and his magic band Grow Fins Revenant

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AVAILABLE ONLY on import from guitarist John Fahey's Revenant label, Grow Fins is a warts-and-all portrait of one of rock's most extravagantly gifted, idiosyncratic outfits. At times, the warts outnumber the more pristine complexions, Beefheart being dedicated to revealing the beauty of those wartier musical moments, as he doggedly dragged the free-jazz innovations of Albert Ayler and Eric Dolphy into rock'n'roll. Compared to the huge creative arc traversed by Beefheart's Magic Band, particularly in the five years between 1967 and 1972, the progress of latterday rock musicians seems stunted, their ambitions measly. Grow Fins covers the Magic Band's output in chronological order, the first two discs dealing with the Captain's mid-Sixties R&B stylings - odd, spiky pieces which colonised the space between garage psychedelia, deep soul and gruff, sexual blues in the manner of Howlin' Wolf, covers of whose material turn up (along with songs by John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters) in the live performances from such exotic hotbeds of psychedelic activity as San Francisco's Avalon Ballroom and Frank Freeman's Dance Studio, Kidderminster.

The third disc features the home demo version of the Captain's masterpiece Trout Mask Replica, an unprecedented step into the unknown which finds the Magic Band transformed from psychedelic blues band to avant-jazz/poetry ensemble. Long rumoured to have been vomited forth by Beefheart in one protracted burst of creative weirdness, the demos show the album to have actually been meticulously planned and rigorously rehearsed, not least by guitarists Zoot Horn Rollo and Antennae Jimmy Semens, whose discordant, mutant blues lines roll and tumble spikily, like playful porcupine cubs.

With the fourth disc mostly given over to Enhanced CD video footage of band performances, the post-Trout Mask period - in which the various disparate elements came together in extraordinary fruition on albums like Clear Spot and Lick My Decals Off, Baby - is crammed onto the final disc, a bustling pot-pourri of impromptu harp and vocal solos, piano demos and further live performances, the best of which is probably the "Grow Fins" taken from the 1972 Bickershaw Festival.

Always a dictatorial, irascible old coot, the Captain's character comes through clearly in the radio interview fragments. Uncategorisable and uncompromising, his band's work stands as an indictment of most subsequent rock music, both musically and lyrically: not the least of Beefheart's achievements is the new language he brought to matters of the heart, streams of surreal imagery with which he poetically re-connected the carnal back to its primal urges.

Almost two decades after he gave up music for painting, still nobody flexes their magic muscle quite as individually as Captain Beefheart.