Album Review: Captain Beyond — Live in Texas: October 6, 1973

Way back in my high school days, I developed an abiding interest that developed into a lifelong hobby. Though these days its intensity level is much lower than, say, a decade ago, my fascination with bootleg recordings remains. I have long believed that bootlegs, or ROIOs (recordings of illegitimate / indeterminate origin) can and often do provide a unique window into understanding of the work of an artist. With the filter of what-should-come-out removed, the listener gets to hear the artist at his or her most raw and direct. Setting aside studio bootlegs (a fascinating category all its own), live bootlegs – free from post-production sweetening – can show us how the act actually sounded onstage.

Live sound reinforcement was none too subtle in the 1970s; there were pretty much two settings: OFF and LOUD. Clearly the latter was the one most often chosen. And as rock’s audience grew, it meant that (unlike today) one rarely got to see their favorite band onstage in a venue designed for music. No, sports arenas and big ol’ open outdoor spaces were the venue of choice in those days. So sound quality wasn’t all that splendid to start with.

Add to that the fact that mobile recording equipment (the amateur kind, not the Rolling Stones Mobile Truck kind) was not very sophisticated, and those who wished to sneak recorders into shows often had to be very inventive.

The result of all this is that bootlegs of the 1970s are rarely in what modern day listeners would call excellent fidelity. But their historical value often trumps that, at least for bootleg aficionados such as this writer. We’d much rather have that warts-and-all live tape of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band onstage in 1966 at a coffeehouse in Boston than not have it at all. Especially when it comes to lesser-known and/or semi-forgotten rock acts, bootlegs are a rare chance to learn more about an act we didn’t know all that much about to begin with.

Captain Beyond is the kind of act that falls into this category. A supergroup-of-sorts, the band was formed by veterans of other well-known acts. Singer Rod Evans had been in Deep Purple during their “Hush” era. Bobby Caldwell had played drums with Johnny Winter, and briefly with Keith Relf‘s post-Yardbirds outfit Armageddon. And guitarist Larry “Rhino” Reinhardt and bassist Lee Dorman had been in Iron Butterfly, though only the bassist had been on board when they cut “In-a-Gadda-da-Vida.”

Signed to Capricorn Records, Captain Beyond was (for that reason and/or others) not destined for the big time. But their mix of vaguely progressive stylings with hard-hard rock, 70s style made a pretty exciting recipe. Their prime-era albums (a 1972 self-titled debut and 1973’s Sufficiently Breathless) are overlooked gems from the era, and make the point yet again that a lot of good music slipped by relatively unnoticed in rock’s heyday.

But now in 2013 comes a live album, Live in Texas: October 6, 1973. It’s certainly in that warts-and-all sonic quality category; the harsh, brittle and occasionally whooshy sound won’t win any engineering awards. But then, that’s not the point. Live in Texas is a rare document of a relatively unknown band, onstage at their peak, giving it all they’ve got. And for that reason alone, it’s worthwhile.

The music’s pretty good, too. And once the listener’s ears acclimate to the sound quality, it’s an entertaining listen. Like many acts of the era, Captain Beyond are introduced by a taped introduction featuring ominous, slowed-down vocals (I don’t know what he’s saying, but it sounds very important). After rocking out for a half dozen tunes, the band moves into a gentle, subtle piece in which Evans sort of reads poetry. “Pandora’s Box (It’s War)” is either pretentious, humorous, or both. It’s enjoyable in a Spinal Tap sort of way, and Reinhardt’s guitar noodling behind Evans’ emotional reading is inventive. One does wonder how the audience reacted to all this: the audio document suggest they stood in dumbstruck silence during the “reading” portion, and then roared and whistled when the cacophonous rocking part kicked in, sounding a bit like Pink Floyd‘s “A Saucerful of Secrets.”

Being that it was 1973, this probably won’t surprise you, but the live set at this Arlington TX show included tracks called “Guitar Solo” and “Drum Solo.” These are pretty much what you’d expect: technically impressive, of great interest to hardcore aficionados and/or musicians, and shamelessly overlong. And on “Guitar Solo,” Reinhardt displays his prowess with the Golden Throat, a little device that would find worldwide notoriety a few years later when stuck in into the pie hole of one Peter Frampton. But the songs from their two albums are exciting and well-played, full of that unique balance of prog and (I mean this in a good way) good old lunkheaded, unsubtle heavy rock. The show wraps up with a faithful reading of Jimi Hendrix‘s “Stone Free.”

This set has been around for awhile, as it happens. It made the rounds for years as a bootleg, of course. (Captain Beyond was opening for King Crimson, of all things, on this date.) While this 2013 release on Purple Pyramid doesn’t provide any documentation as to the recording’s lineage, our friends at Wikipedia tell us that the band has endeavored to release and/or clean up this recording for release a few times before. Adjectives used by Wikipedia contributors to describe the tape’s sound quality include “bad” and terrible.” You have been warned.

Balance that against the fact that no other live recordings – bootleg or otherwise – of Captain Beyond are known to exist, and that Reinhardt and Dorman both passed away in 2012. So it’s either this or nothing. With those caveats, it’s still a recommended listen, but you’d also do well to track down the band’s first two studio albums; one has been reissued on Purple Pyramid as well; both are quite rare on original vinyl (my preferred format) so I don’t have them yet, but have enjoyed them via Spotify.

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