CAPTAIN BEEFHEART: GROW FINS VOL. 3 (1969-1982; 1999)
1) My Human Gets Me Blues (1969 live); 2) When Big Joan Sets Up (1971 live); 3) Woe Is Uh Me Bop (1971 live); 4) Bellerin Plain (1971 live); 5) Black Snake Moan (1972 radio phone-in); 6) Grow Fins (1972 live); 7) Black Snake Moan II (1972 radio); 8) Spitball Scalped Uh Baby (1972 live); 9) Harp Boogie I (1972 radio); 10) One Red Rose That I Mean (1972 live); 11) Harp Boogie II (1972 radio); 12) Natchez Burning (1972 radio); 13) Harp Boogie III (1972 radio phone-in); 14) Click Clack (1973 live); 15) Orange Claw Hammer (1975 radio); 16) Odd Jobs (1975 piano demo); 17) Odd Jobs (1976 band demo); 18) Vampire Suite (1980 worktapes/live); 19) Mellotron Improv (1978 live); 20) Evening Bell (1980 piano worktape); 21) Evening Bell (1982 guitar worktape); 22) Mellotron Improv (1980 live); 23) Flavor Bud Living (1980 live).
The last volume of Grow Fins is as messy as they come — an assortment of mostly live post-TMR performances, roughly arranged in chronological order and interspersed with occasional demos and snippets of radio interviews (usually involving Beefheart briefly tapping into his blues roots with an acapella Howlin' Wolf imitation or a short harmonica solo). It is an interesting mess, for sure, and could have been quite awesome if not for the awful sound quality on the absolute majority of the tracks — hiss, crackle, pop, and lo-fi audience recording are the norm of the day here, so the entire experience is really for those who like their unlistenable Captain to sound even more unlistenable; I mean, what can be better than dissonant cacophony, other than dissonant cacophony that sounds like total lo-fi shit?
That said, it's a bit of a pity, because the live recordings from 1971-72 are quite energetic and inspired. For one thing, this was the height of Beefheart's involvement with free jazz, and so you get an even longer, wilder, more hysterical version of ʽWhen Big Joan Sets Upʼ — and a nine-minute long drums-and-sax improv called ʽSpitball Scalped Uh Babyʼ, the likes of which you will not find on any studio Beefheart album (whether it's any good, though, is up to seasoned connaisseurs of free-form jazz to decide). For another, it gives you a good chance to verify that The Magic Band did indeed rock harder live than in the studio — the guitar riffs on ʽWoe Is Uh Me Bopʼ are crisper, and the lead lines far shriller than the marimba-soothed studio version, and ʽGrow Finsʼ gets a red-hot fuzz cloud all over its rhythm guitar and bass, approaching, if not heavy metal, then at least the classic Stones sound in terms of heaviness.
Once the ferociously flogged-on live version of ʽClick Clackʼ from 1973 is over, the chronology predictably takes a break (nothing from Beefheart's Annus horribilis of 1974), and the latter day material is not nearly as tough. A lot of space is taken over by the Bat Chain Puller number ʽOdd Jobsʼ — first in the form of a monotonously looped, brain-beating, piano demo version, then in the form of an equally looped and brain-beating early band demo, with guitars replacing piano but not much of an overall change. And the live material from the early 1980s is mostly confined to bits of «Mellotron improvisation» (where the best bits come from Beefheart vocally taunting the audience rather than the actual rape of the Mellotron) and a couple guitar solo bits from Gary Lucas that add little to what we already know about the man's skills from the studio records. This really sounds like barrel-bottom-scraping.
In conclusion, I must restate that on the whole, Grow Fins is a disappointment, and as bad as the situation with Beefheart's vaults might have been, I feel that a much better job could be made out of it — but it is most likely that the whole thing was done on a shoestring budget anyway, because one thing that never stuck around for too long around the Captain or his pals was money, and as noble as that sounds, it also has certain drawbacks. Still, given the choice between this kind of selection with this kind of quality production and nothing, even I, not the world's biggest Beefheart admirer by any means, would go along with the project. As Zappa says in his introduction to this volume's first performance, "Listen, be quiet and pay attention to this man's music, because if you don't, you might miss something important, and we wouldn't want that to happen to you, because you need all the friends you can get". Seems like the thirty years that elapsed between that pronunciation in 1969 and the release of Grow Fins in 1999 didn't make that message any less relevant.