Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Albert Frost Wishes He Was A Catfish

FROST, ALBERT CATFISH (Capetone Records, 2002)

Blues grew to what it has become today through a folk process where each generation of musicians learnt from an older generation and in turn passed on the knowledge to yet another generation. In Delta blues and other country blue styles there is a wide variety of common guitar, piano or harp licks and standard phrases that can be mixed’n’matched at will to create new songs from an amalgam of old ones. John Lee Hooker was famous for “Hookerizing” all kinds of older songs, and not just old blues tunes either, and in the process making his version so indelibly his own that it is in fact a brand new song.

The Jimi Hendrix tune called “Catfish Blues,” which is the title track to Albert Frost’s debut solo album, is a good example of this folk process at work. The “Hendrixized” version is a combination of musical and lyrical fragments of at least six Delta blues standards that would have been the sources for very many variations by lesser known bluesmen. Albert Frost claims that Jimi Hendrix’s “Catfish Blues” has been an inspiration to him ever since he heard it seven years ago. Right there we can put our finger on the very interesting and in some ways bizarre confluence of influences that make up a modern, young, White South African bluesman or, at least, a blues rocker.

As is readily apparent from the tunes Frost chooses to perform on his album, he came to the blues through the filter of Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan, that is, his influences are the major guitar wizard of all time and a White guy from Texas whose hyperthyroid style of pedal to the metal blues guitar is arguably the most important reason why there was such a worldwide blues boom in the Eighties. Most people think of Hendrix as the “psychedelic superspade” who took guitar playing out into the stratosphere and beyond, to places where no one else has ever been, try as they might, but there is a school of thought that claims that Hendrix was nothing but a bluesman all his life, albeit one with a better set of effects pedals. Jimi grew up with blues (and soul and rock’n’roll) and eventually knew and played with some the giants of the post war blues scene, giants such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, Albert King, and other luminaries. Stevie Ray similarly grew up in a world where blues was just one part of a range of music types that were available for sampling right there where he lived. He also met and played with some of the giants that Hendrix knew, plus some of the younger bluesmen such as Buddy Guy and Otis Rush. The point is, these guys lived in the land of the blues and experienced it at first hand. They soaked up the influences virtually at source, selected the ingredients that best appealed to them and gave a whole new blues thang to their respective generations. In the folk process of the blues they could meet the old masters, check them out and learn directly from them.

Down here at the Southern tip of Africa it is not possible to grow up in a town where you can go listen to an authentic Delta juke joint blues band. What we know about the blues and its performers is what we hear on records or CDs. Hardly any of the local blues players can claim that they were tutored in the Southside clubs like a Michael Bloomfield or have earned a living since their teenage years playing blues with other working blues musicians in sweaty, smoky Austin, Texas dives, like Stevie Ray. You don’t have to have the blues to play the blues but for maximum effect it sure helps to grow up with it as your near neighbour.

I guess Stevie Ray is popular in South Africa because his frenetic, rocking style is close enough to rock to impress people who really know little or nothing about blues and because he is most definitely not downhome. His guitar sounds big, brash and bountiful and the playing is sometimes quite excessive as if he literally found it impossible to stop playing. Hendrix could play as fast as anyone but, like a jazz player or many bluesmen, he also knew when to lay back and to let the tension of minimalism work for him.

So, here is Albert Frost, working hard on stage with bass’n’drums backing, performing a programme of blues favourites and four of his own songs. His guitar tone, attack and style of playing combine the styles of Hendrix and Vaughan and on Frost’s version of Stevie Ray’s version of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) (to give it its proper title) the two worlds meld.

Frost’s main drawback as a bluesman is his slightly weedy, unharmed, White South African voice that cannot do justice to the voodoo that should inform any version of “Who Do You Love” or “Voodoo Chile” for that matter and not to mention “Crawling Kingsnake.” For one thing, in the first part of the set Frost is in too much of a hurry to get the words out, as if he is scared that he won’t get to the end of the story quickly enough. In the same way and for the same reason that a blues guitarist is more effective when he (or she) lays back to let the tension build, the vocals in something like “Who Do You Love” must be full of casual, laidback menace to bring justice to the tale. Maybe Frost just gets over excited on stage, maybe he just wants to get the singing over with so he can let his guitar talk on his behalf. He resolves this issue on “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” by not singing at all and throwing in a bit of “Third Stone From The Sun” for good measure. “The Same Thing” must be from a second set because this is where Frost settles down, relaxes and starts to do justice to the songs he sings.

I wonder how many current blues guitarists the Jimi Hendrix:Blues album has inspired? Albert Frost not only loves and performs “Catfish Blues” off that album but he also gives us his take on Hendrix’s instrumental version of the Albert King classic, “Born Under A Bad Sign.” Whatever happened to King’s own version or that of Cream, featuring the stinging blues licks of Eric Clapton, who does not seem to have the following Stevie Ray or Jimi have? This is what I mean about the lack of the authentic experience: Frost prefers to play (admittedly in a fine way) his interpretation of a jamming variation on a song rather than give us his version of the original, to the extent that he also leaves out the lyrics. Is this because he doesn’t know the Albert King version? Surely not, if he is serious about blues.

“Help Me” is a Sonny Boy Williamson tune that has been covered by groups as diverse as Ten Years After, Canned Heat and Otis Waygood Blues Band but the basic take on the song is a slow, swinging, moody riff with mouth harp punctuation and with maximum pathos on the vocals. Frost does it as a fast, stomping Southside of Chicago houserocker (this guy doesn’t need any help at all) and though one suspects it is a version he learned off a record, it is sufficiently different from the standard arrangement to make one believe he has “Frostized” it in an authentic folk process move.

Though Albert Frost must have spent a lot of time learning Stevie Ray’s material, not to mention Hendrix, he has managed to avoid he pitfalls of exact imitation of a role model, or record. Frost has the metallic attack of Stevie Ray and a certain similarity in turn of guitar phrase but is much more economical with his notes and he has the deft, spacey jazz touches, especially evident on “Lenny,” that characterizes Hendrix’s best slow, reflective playing. Frost makes his guitar spit out notes, musical phrases and choppy rhythm with an almost casual precision whereas Stevie Ray sometimes sounded as if he were vomiting out everything in him without regard as to what he was going to hit. If I am correct, the late Nico Burger was one of Albert’s guitar mentors – in fact, Albert Frost replaced Nico Burger in the Blues Broers after playing rhythm guitar behind him for a while – and at the height of his powers Nico Burger was possibly the finest blues guitar player in South Africa. He had style, attack, taste, economy and the common sense to know that when you play a solo you do not just emit a spray of notes to show off your technique – many of the greatest blues guitarists were not technically all that proficient – but that the way to make a lasting impression with your guitar statement was to hit it hard, git it good and split. Though Frost often sounds as if he is going to head off way deep into Stevie Ray Vaughan-land, he never loses his grip on the focus button and is not scared to avoid clich├ęs. He has an authentic own voice on the guitar and should write his own blues, or maybe investigate blues from the original sources that inspired Hendrix and Vaughan both of whom started out imitating others but soon not only developed their own, unique styles of playing but also learnt to write their own tunes. Frost should already be way past the first level of the bluesman’s apprenticeship.

The acoustic songs on the latter part of the CD are anything but quiet country blues picking. Albert Frost attacks the acoustic guitar as if he were still playing his electric or maybe he’s forgotten about the amplification and thinks he should hit the strings hard to make himself heard over the happy noises from the audience. In a way this style harks back to the sole extant recording of Jimi Hendrix playing an acoustic guitar, when he does the “unplugged” version of “Hear My Train A-Comin’ ” that opens Jimi Hendrix:Blues. “Crawling Kingsnake” is also taken too fast and become more of a “Bopping Bullfrog” but “Rolling and Tumbling” is a fresh take on a Delta standard and the original tunes that round of the album are real pleasures because Frost sings them with more conviction than his lightweight voice brings to the blues, possibly because he takes his time with them, they are his songs and he isn’t straining to be some kind of macho bluesman.

Catfish is not the first South African live blues album – the Blues Broers’ Cellar Tapes and the debut album from Delta Blue precedes it – but it is far and away the best. Albert Frost clearly enjoys playing, has the chops and the good taste to rock the house with an elegant sufficiency, is backed by a tight, unobtrusive rhythm section, performs a varied programme of bluesrock standards with empathy for his sources and the end result is that you actually want to hear him doing more of his own material as well, to see him move away from just being a more superior human jukebox to being the all-round talented original he obviously is.

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