Review: Mr McFall’s Chamber

captain beefheart - photo by andy freeberg

First published in The Herald on 20 September, 2013

Mr McFall’s Chamber
Glad Cafe, Glasgow

As a teenager in the late ’60s, Robert McFall would while away the hours with Frank Zappa’s Freak Out! and Captain Beefheart’s ballsy swamp blues via John Peel’s radio shows. With typical classy eclecticism, Mr McFall’s Chamber – the intrepid Edinburgh-based troupe of Scottish Chamber Orchestra musicians and friends – make Beefheart and Zappa the backbone of their latest tour. The programme also showcases first-rate new works by Martin Kershaw and Paul Harrison, both of whom doff their caps to the brash rock iconoclasts but keep their jazz-accented language their own.

There’s been a recent explosion of interest in Zappa from the classical music world, with tribute shows at the Proms and Edinburgh and a UK debut of 200 Motels coming up at the Southbank in October. McFall’s have been ploughing this field for well over a decade, ever since those ear-opening early gigs at the original Bongo Club, and their take is mellow. There was laid-back swing to Echidna’s Arf (of you) and G-Spot Tornado, the zany metric shifts lolloping by without much sass or shock factor. The Beefheart numbers (Ice Rose, Suction Prints) could have likewise used more tight-sprung jolt.

But there’s a vibrancy in this group’s sound that’s always beguiling. The Habanera from John Adams’s Book of Alleged Dances was poised and elegant. Kershaw’s Far Vistas translates Caithness scenery to bright, interlocking percussion against warm padding from strings and French horn. Harrison’s four-movement The Dust Blows Forward kicks off with a jaggy, Monk-ish theme; later vibraphone trills and yearning horn motifs are laced with cheeky keyboard riffs. A recording of Beefheart’s grisly singing weaves into the contours of the score, subversive as always.