Nona Hendryx Sings Captain Beefheart Back To Life

by Jeff Suwak

Labelle co-founder sings the music of Captain Beefheart on tribute album.



You might know Nona Hendryx as one of the three outrageous, beautiful women of Labelle who sang "Lady Marmalade" with some of the most soulful pipes 1974 had to offer. One of the most distinctive and provocative songs of its time (it's about prostitute), "Lady Marmalade" was also a #1 hit in America.

Outside of the "gitchy gitchy ya ya ya" of "Marmalade," Hendryx carved out a reputation as an artist with inclinations towards the experimental – and the guts to pursue those inclinations. After Labelle, she collaborated with the arthouse bands Material (she sang their biggest hit, "Bustin' Out") and Talking Heads. In 2017, she performed in Nick Cave's UNTIL installation in the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). Along the way, she never shied from political fights, recording songs like "Tea Party" and "The Ballad of Rush Limbaugh." In short, there may be no other vocalist better suited to serenade Captain Beefheart's bones back to life.
Hendryx first encountered Beefheart's music when she saw him perform in a club in New York. She thinks the venue was the legendary Village Gate, but she's not sure. Regardless, she was taken right away by Beefheart's music. "Other than Sun Ra and a few other artists, I hadn't heard anything like him before. He was something new and wild and wonderful."

Hendryx was a Beefheart fan from that day forward, particularly fond of his most famous creation, Trout Mask Replica. So, when she got the chance to perform in a Beefheart tribute, she jumped at it.

The opportunity came after she ran into bassist Jesse Krakow, who was teaching at the School of Rock near Hendryx' studio. Krakow told her about an upcoming Beefheart tribute show he was playing, and asked if Hendryx wanted to get involved. Hendryx said yes, and from that chance encounter, she met Gary Lucas.

Lucas, the "thinking man's guitar hero" (according to The New Yorker), has made something of a side career memorializing acts like Jeff Buckely and Captain Beefheart, both of whom he wrote, recorded, and performed with. The show that resulted from that first meeting was, in Hendryx' words, "A wild, crazy, Captain Beefheart kind of night." It set the stage for future collaborations, which eventually led to The World of Captain Beefheart.
World isn't just for the faithful; it's designed to bring Beefheart to the plates of a whole new generation of listeners. The song selection samples from the full range of Beefheart's music, kicking off with the wonky ass-kicker "Sun Zoom Stark." The song serves as the album's "statement of first principles," according to the liner notes. After that, World touches upon Beefheart at his most tender, tame, riled-up, and bizarre.

The eclectic range of songs demands an equally eclectic vocal talent. Hendryx nails that role beautifully. She's got soul to spare with beautiful renditions of borderline-conventional songs like "I'm Glad" and "My head," but she also gets tough with "The Smithsonian Institute Blues" and downright malevolent in "When it Blows Its Stacks." She does vocal things I don't even have adjectives for in "When Big Joan Sets Up" - though I'll give it a shot and call it Bjorkian. "Too Much Time" sounds like it was written for Hendryx and Hendryx alone.

I asked Hendryx if she set out as a young woman to build a career in the more experimental avant-garde corners of music, and she said that she had not. "It's what I'm attracted to. I have no idea why. I'm curious and love a challenge in terms of creativity. It can be considered commercial. It can be Avant-garde. I just move towards what makes me curious."

Well, that pursuit of curiosity has benefited listeners for over 50 years. The World of Captain Beefheart is Hendryx's latest detour. Check it out if you're a Beefheart fan to hear some new takes on some old favorites. If you're not familiar with Beefheart, then make doubly sure to check it out - this album was made for you.

November 13, 2017
Get more Nona in our 2012 interview
More info on The World of Captain Beefheart is at garylucas.com

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