It’s a safe bet that for many Captain Beefheart fans, the very idea of covering the late Don Van Vliet’s compositions (or aping his, shall we say, “raw” vocal stylings) is bloody sacrilege. Trout Mask Replica, certainly his best-known album – or at least the one most referenced, if not actually listened to all the way through – is a bewildering, nearly unmitigated stream-of-consciousness jazz/rock/skronk blast. It’s made all the more compelling by the fact that it was, in fact, carefully composed and then dictated by Van Vliet, who was barely competent on any instrument save harmonica and, perhaps, saxophone. Fascinating? Definitely. Coverable? Not so much.
Now, almost exactly seven years after Van Vliet’s passing from complications of multiple sclerosis, The World of Captain Beefheart takes a game stab at reimagining his oeuvre; it could perhaps be labeled a “semi-covers” project, in that one of the two principals, Gary Lucas, was Van Vliet’s last musical collaborator, as well as being his co-manager.
But it’s the choice of vocalist Nona Hendryx that takes what could have been a relatively safe retread—if any of Beefheart’s compositions could truly be called “safe”—and spins it into a revealing, largely successful reframing of Van Vliet’s imposing musical legacy. If the average pop fan knows her, it’s as one third of ’70s R&B act LaBelle. But the majority of her career has been spent on artier pursuits than one might expect from one of the singers of “Lady Marmalade.” After the group split in 1976, Hendryx would go on to perform with Talking Heads, Material, and other art-rock notables.