HOW BLUE ARE MY BLUES?
Music is a very important part of my life. I listen to a great variety of music and I do my best to keep up with developments in popular music. My friends think of me as a walking Encyclopedia of useless facts about rock music and the people who make the music. My taste in music is pretty eclectic and catholic; there are few genres of music I do not like. On the whole I prefer raw, simple, unsophisticated music that touches my heart and feet and is without artifice even if it is inventive and has a great beat and preferably an instantly memorable tune that I can easily sing along to.
The mid-Seventies British R & B combo Dr Feelgood was the first band I discovered and loved on my own and without the imprimatur of the hip circles at my high school; in fact they did not even know of this bunch of pre-punk pub rockers and the band remained my well-kept, treasured secret. The song “Back In The Night” from Malpractice, their second album, was played in a Juke Box Jury type of programme on Radio 5 back in 1975 and its strange, otherworldly slide riff and methodical shuffle rhythm utterly captivated me, not least because it was so completely different to the run of the mill disco and rock being playlisted at the time. I decided that I’d finally found a music that I could latch onto in my silent rebellion against the constraints of my peer group and the society in which I lived. It also happened that Dr Feelgood’s look and music were harbingers for the punk revolution that swept the UK a few years later but at the time I was so smitten with the basic, raw energetic R & B of the album, once I’d bought it, that I almost wore out the grooves on the vinyl record whilst staring at the front cover photograph of four of the meanest looking white men I’d ever seen. They looked as hard and vicious as the music on the record.
The next step on the road to the blues was the double album Cream’s Cream: Greatest Hits Live where Eric Clapton played some of his best blues inspired psychedelic guitar licks – the solo on “Sleepy Time Time” is an extended, caressing, entrancing, euphoric meditation on the blues that is so fluently melodic that one could learn to sing it. Cream showed me the way and from there I headed straight for the real blues and as teenager it was important to have found and to cherish a type of music that was my little secret of which my peer group knew nothing, that is they knew nothing about the blues and they did not how important it was to me.
I started reading everything I could find about blues and the names of musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Little Walter, and all the rest, were mysterious and esoteric enough to enthral me but the single significant step towards total immersion in the blues was the day I bought John Lee Hooker’s Greatest Hits (Vee Jay) after listening just once to the first cut, “Boogie Chillen.” It was only one electric guitar playing one of the simplest, deadliest, totally hypnotising, hipshaking boogie beats you could imagine, with a stamping foot to punctuate the rhythmic accents and this deep, dark Delta blues voice narrating the simple tale of John Lee’s arrival in Detroit, how he was walking down Hastings Street, was pointed in the direction of Henry’s Swing Club, went inside and observed how the crowd was shaking its collective ass. “When I got there that night they were really having a ball. I said ‘yeah, people’…” A few sharp, stuttering notes from the guitar. Silence. Tension builds. Boom! The relentless boogie starts up again … “Boogie Chillen!” John Lee shouts in exhilaration, A well nigh perfect example of how tension and release is supposed to work. This album also has the hypnotically sexual voodoo rendition of “Crawling Kingsnake” that challenges any woman to resist John Lee Hooker’s (“I rules my den”) and warns all other men, “Don’t want you around my mate, wanna use her for myself.” There is also the equally horny “I’m In The Mood” – don’t bother asking him what he is in the mood for -- when John Lee is in the mood he does not accept a headache as an excuse.
Once the crawling kingsnake had bitten me there was no antidote. I searched high and low in all the record shops in Cape Town to find all the blues albums I could lay my hands on and I was fortunate enough to be able to build up quite a collection in a relatively brief period because so many blues albums landed up in record sales or the “reduced to clear” racks Sometimes I felt as if the Big Retailer In The Sky was personally taking care of my hunger for blues music. From 1990 I started buying CDs mostly because I’d discovered how much blues was available on budget price CDs. The first CD I bought was a collection of Muddy Waters’ tracks and a similar collection of Howlin’ Wolf music followed soon after.
At first, and primarily, my interest and collection were limited to the electric downhome blues out of the Southside of post war Chicago, the music of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Little Walter, and others. Later I discovered Albert and BB King, the urban bluesmen, and Buddy Guy and Junior Wells and the rest of the crew from the Westside of Chicago, and much later I started enjoying the raw acoustic Delta blues – although I’d bought the two King Of The Delta Blues Singers albums of songs by the legendary Robert Johnson somewhere in the early Eighties, it took me a long time and a lot of growing up before I could listen to such plain, rough music.
My take on the blues is that is simply really good music that always puts me in a better mood when it’s on the stereo. Much of blues is happy party music, sexual music – this is the real meaning of the boogie – and I’ve never listened to blues because I’m feeling down, the blues do not depress me. Muddy Waters’ funky, dancing, floating slide riff on “I Can’t Be Satisfied” is like a shot of Red Bull. When I am totally depressed I listen to heavy metal. When I’m happy I listen to blues and it can only elevate my mood.
Music plays a very important role in my life and I’ve found myself in situations where the situation or my thoughts or experience can be expressed by some song lyric, maybe only a couplet or a few lines. Some times these songs are blues. For example, Fleetwood Mac’s (with Peter Green) version of “I Need Your Love So Bad” -- “when the lights are low & it’s time to go, I need your love so bad”; “I need someone to stand up & tell me when I’m lying”; “give it up, bring it home to me / write it on a piece of paper, baby, so it can be read to me” -- must be one of the all time top ten heart wrenching songs of longing for an absent lover. A certain country blues tune has had enormous resonance for me: “Ain’t it lonely to be sleeping by yourself when the woman you love is loving someone else.” What about Muddy Waters’ “Honeybee” where he encourages his woman, “sail on my little honeybee, sail on.” Cleo Gibson’s “I’ve Got Ford Engine Movements In My Hips” (“ten thousand miles guarantee”.) Or the raunchy, ribald “stoop down, baby, let your daddy see / you’ve got something down there, worrying the hell out of me.”
When I listen to blues I mostly hear just a different type of pop music and the clichés of the blues (the sadness, the injustices, the oppression, etc.) are not always present. Just about all the old blues guys played the blues to entertain an audience, to earn some money and to avoid a proper job; they played at dances, house parties, fish fries, juke joints. The purpose was to provide a good time to encourage people to drink, to get their asses of their seats and to get out on the dance floor to shake those asses until dawn.
One of the reasons I like electric downhome blues so much is that it is mainly ensemble playing, the call and response between guitar (slide or single string), piano and wailing mouth harp. Often the harp is the most important or only solo instrument and the guitarist plays only chordal accompaniment or fills. In the Southside Chicago sound it is more important for the musician to support the other guys in the band and to serve the song than it is to be the solo star showboating with his virtuosity. It was only later, under the influence of T Bone Walker, and B B en Albert King, that the West Side style of guitarists like Magic Sam, Buddy Guy en Otis Rush, as well as the electric Texas style, of extended, virtuoso soloing became perhaps over emphasised, especially when the style and mindset were adopted by white guitarists following in the wake of the likes of Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield. In Britain the first wave of blues groups – the R & B bands -- such as the Rolling Stones did their best to sound like authentic products of the South Side, and the second wave of more purist blues bands from The Yardbirds onwards, and in particular John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, looked to the West Side sound for inspiration which appealed to the new quest for technically excellent guitarists who had superior chops to the downhome musicians who did not need to stand out above the other people in the band or become front men in their own right. It was not long before the most influential blues guitarists were talents such as Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter en Stevie Ray Vaughan, each of whom could play an astonishingly fluently virtuoso guitar with lots of rock influences too. Clapton was probably the first white, blues inspired guitarist who played those almost excessively extended improvised solos – for example on tunes like “Sleepy Time Time” and “Crossroads” – but also knew how important economy, dynamics and tunefulness are. Michael Bloomfield, who more or less grew up as musician in the Southside, and Peter Green, also had the technique to spare yet also the feel of the blues and did not feel the urge to impress their audiences with their dexterity or ability to play bloated solos just because they could. Hendrix showed the way forward in many directions, one of which was to the technically superior shredders of the late Eighties who were eventually proof positive that there is no point to excessive technical virtuosity unless your purpose in life was no more than the intent to impress other musicians and highly impressionable, lonely teenage boys. There was, and is, no depth of feeling in anything the shredders play; it is all about showing off chops and speed.
In South Africa ZZ Top, for songs, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, for a guitar style and songs, seem to be the main influences on local blues guitarists, plus of course Hendrix as the Supreme Deity of any style of guitar playing, and possibly also Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and, as a result of his blues phase, Gary Moore. The biggest drawback of the local guitarists is that they have no first hand experience of live blues as performed by the originals of the genre or their second-generation followers. The aspirant South African blues guitarist must perforce get to know the blues through the recorded medium or must take lessons, learn blues licks from guitar tutorials, or listen to local blues players who are as handicapped. The cliché has it that blues is simple but difficult to get right because it is 90% feeling and 10% technique or virtuosity. The local guys usually have it the other way around: 90% technique and 10% feeling because they certainly did not grow up in depressed, sub-economic circumstances where the blues would thrive. How many local Blacks play the blues? How many middle class White blues musicians do we have in South Africa?
The local guitarists apparently believe that they are somehow authentic blues men if they master a I, IV, V progression and a blues scale, learn to play “House of The Rising Sun” or a couple of Stevie Ray Vaughan tunes, master “La Grange” and “Hoochie Coochie Man” and become good enough to play endless solos by running the changes up and down a blues scale. Usually the tune is just an excuse for the guitarist – in most cases the bandleader and vocalist too – to show off how marvellous he is on the guitar. I am particularly annoyed when Howlin’ Wolf’s “Who’s Been Talking/Cause Of It All” is referred to from the stage as a Stevie Ray Vaughan tune just because the guitar player learnt the song off a Stevie Ray album. Do these people not read the songwriter’s credits? Do they even have any idea who Howlin’ Wolf was?
In the late Eighties The Flaming Firestones brought blues back to masses and their popular success encourage a general resurgence in the blues in Cape Town. Clayton Frick, the leader, was by all accounts quite serious about his mission to educate Capetonians about the blues. Sometimes his guitar playing flirted with blues rock rather than pure blues but in Howlin’ Mervyn Woolf the Firestones had an excellent vocalist and harp player – even Clayton’s show stopping rendition of ”Rock Me, Baby” – and Rob Nagel was an equally tasty and virtuoso mouth harp player and useful saxophone player, and the band selected good material and performed them well. Their best show ever was perhaps at the Brass Bell on some long ago Saturday afternoon when they drove the audience to madness and shook the roof timbers with a monster version of “I’ve Got My Mojo Workin’” with a honking horn section of Rob on saxophone and Jannie van der Merwe on trombone. I almost pissed in my pants from the unalloyed joy of listening to a smooth blues machine stomping like it was the Southside – the band swung like motherfuckers.
The Blues Broers arose from the ashes of the defunct Flaming Firestones. Johnny Frick was the guitarslinger, Rob Nagel handled bass and mouth harp. Agent Orange played keyboards and Frank Frost drummed. This first version of the Broers was by a long shot the best blues band in Cape Town and the closest thing to a genuine Southside ensemble that I ever had the pleasure of experiencing locally. As a rule the other so-called blues bands that followed in the wake of The Flaming Firestones were essentially blues rock trios led by a hotshot guitarist who was more interested in showing off his chops than in imparting any kind of love of the blues, if any. Johnny Frick left the Broers after a few trailblazing years and his absence left such a gap in the line up that he was replaced by the godlike Nico Burger– who was sadly already struggling with the alcoholism that was soon to kill him and often impeded his playing – on guitar and John Mostert on vocals. As blues guitarist Nico was a more than adequate replacement for Johnny Frick but unlike Johnny he did not sing at all – was not interested in being a front man -- and Mostert had to take care of that department. Frick was not the greatest of vocalists but he did try and eventually developed something of an authoritative blues voice and it perhaps helped that he also sang some of his own tunes. To my way of thinking Mostert is the anti-Christ of the blues, a man who has never had the blues, certainly not rooted in his soul. Sharp Street, the Blues Broers’ first CD, was a grave disappointment to me, mainly due to Mostert’s bland, affectless voice, but also the somewhat staid playing, and I’ve never bothered to make an effort to buy the subsequent releases. By that time Nico was long gone and his place had been taken by Albert Frost, Frank’s son. Albert is a great guitarist but on Sharp Street the musicians played it so safe and were so careful to observe the conventions and to be tasteful that there was not enough fire in the playing to make up for the evil that Mostert did. The only stone classic track is Agent Orange’s “Glove” on which he takes the vocals and where Albert Frost does a superb take on the Hubert Sumlin style of playing one finds on so many Howlin’ Wolf tracks.
“Glove” is a delight because the band gets stuck into a downhome rave-up and sounds as if they’re having fun and because Mostert is nowhere near it and, last but not least, the lyrics are original and innovative and funny and Orange is not trying to imitate a black guy from some ghetto he has never visited. In short an authentic South African blues.
Writing original South African blues is the direction the likes of Albert Frost and Dan Patlansky must pursue if they have serious intent of being genuine bluesmen. They should write blues about their lives, not merely rehash blues clichés of experiences they‘ve never had. Frost and Patlansky are technically proficient guitarists and can probably play rings around the opposition, so why can’t they write decent, good songs of their own? What kind of creative urge is that that does not move beyond imitations – arguably very good imitations – of someone who was already imitating someone else? At least one can say that Stevie Ray Vaughan’s or Gary Moore’s versions of the old blues are pretty much their own unique interpretations that give new life to the old tunes. The local aspirant bluesmen miss that point – the high-water mark of their ambition seems to be to learn to play a Vaughan tune just like he played it. There is nothing wrong with yet another version of “Hoochie Coochie Man,” if your version of it brings something new and different to the tune, that spark that differentiates the innovator from the imitator. The local guitarists should also listen more widely to blues than merely Vaughan or ZZ Top. They should make a study of the subtle accompaniment of Joe Willie Wilkins behind Sonny Boy Williamson II, or to Willie Johnson who played in Howlin’ Wolf’s Memphis band. Willie Johnson plays fat, over-amped, fuzz tone, jazzy chords that never overshadows the Wolf’s performance but always underpins it, supports it, echoes it and drives the performance with a fevered fury as if he were afraid the Devil is going to come for his soul if he relaxes for one moment. And it is not important for Willie Johnson to grab the limelight with a guitar solo.
SOME THOUGHTS ON NICO BURGER & THE LATE EIGHTIES BLUES REVIVAL IN CAPE TOWN
In 1987 Clayton Frick put together The Flaming Firestones, the spearhead of the so-called “blues explosion” which hit Cape Town a few years later. There was an obvious sense of humour behind the Firestones as well as a declared dedication to the blues, the roots thereof at that. The Firestones were a sizeable band. Clayton played lead guitar and called himself Blind Clayton. Rob Nagel (ex-All Night Radio) was billed as Harp Dog Rob and did not play bass in this ensemble but concentrated on his skills as blueswailing harpist and vocalist on a couple of featured numbers. The drummer was called Pistol Packin’ Pete. I forget the bassist’s monicker. The cap on it all and the one nom de stage that really was on par with the band name, was the vocalist who was inspiringly billed as Howlin’ Mervyn Woolf. Howlin’ Mervyn not only had a great, gutsy blues voice but he also handled the blues harp and on stage he and Rob had some sizzling harmonica duels.
Apart from playing the blues harp, with his showstopper, “Sloppy Drunk,” Rob also had another feature. Somewhere during the show he would don a red Stratocaster, which looked small on him, to perform a song called “Little Sister,” originally made famous by Elvis Presley, though my guess is that Rob’s version was based on Ry Cooder’s recording of the song. Rob had his second vocal feature on the venerable “Hoochie Coochie Man,” usually the last number of the night.
The Flaming Firestones were usually a pleasure to encounter in the live situation. The fact that Rob concentrated on blues harp, and even that the band boasted two harpists, was the major, significant difference between the Firestones and the flood of so-called blues bands that followed in its wake. The Firestones had at least a little of the Chicago Southside sound. The major point of impact though, and perhaps the most important difference between the Firestones and the later blues bands, was that Howlin’’ Mervyn had a powerful blues voice. Most of the blues-rock bands that came afterward suffered (and still suffer) from the lack of a halfway decent and convincing vocalist. You need not necessarily have authenticity or even a “good” voice but you must at least have a powerful voice and a willingness to use it. The later bands were mostly led by singer-guitarists whose ability to play the guitar far outstripped their vocal abilities and this is probably why so many of them preferred to simply play a lot of solos and to get through the lyrics as quickly as possible.
Clayton also sang, and fortunately he also had a strong voice. His featured number was B B King’s version of “Rock Me, Baby” and it was always a commanding performance, not least because the song was enhanced by Rob Nagel’s saxophone riffing.
The band’s main drawback was the guitar playing. As with so many of the blues bands following in the Firestones’ wake, there was too much muscular rock influenced guitar playing. Clayton was a monster rhythm player, in the Nico Burger vein, but liked a harsh, piercing, metallic tone in his soloing -- a kind of a cross between Albert King and Alvin Lee. It worked very well in “Rock Me, Baby” where Clayton was somewhat restrained but less well elsewhere where he was definitely a blues-rock player rather than a blues player. Be that as it may, the band was usually exciting and I almost always enjoyed their performances.
At the time they were probably the only half decent live band gigging regularly in Cape Town and I followed them around. They played the Brass Bell quite often on Saturday afternoons and at the Café Royal, mostly on Friday nights. I was such a fixture at their gigs, usually right in front, that the bassist eventually came up to me to ask my name, remarking that he sees me at their gigs all the time. I never became friends with the band members but from that time on we at least exchanged greetings, and I often exchanged a few words with the bassist whom I also encountered in the audience at the gigs of other bands.
After gigging solidly for a while the Firestones lost Clayton who went overseas. Nico Burger replaced him. I was glad to see Nico playing again in any event, but I was especially pleased because in my estimation Nico was a far superior blues guitarist. Nico had the sensitivity and the true touch of the authentic bluesmen who were not simply rock’n’rollers who played blues progressions in a kind of sub hard rock way.
Nico’s debut with the Firestones was at the Three Arts Theatre in Plumstead. The Three Arts was a Cape Town entertainment landmark for many years. It was a multipurpose hall, the last remnant of Cape Town’s huge cinemas, a regular venue for ice shows and had hosted many a foreign show biz star. By the late Eighties the Three Arts no longer showed first run movies but, like the Pinelands Theatre and (at the time) the Labia Theatre, specialised as an Art House that showed “cult” movies. The theatre seated about three thousand people but it was not uncommon to have audiences of fewer than twenty people at a movie show. At the Pinelands Theatre the movie show would start only if there was at least six paying customers.
Anyhow by the time of Nico’s debut with Firestones, the Quibell brothers, owners of the Three Arts, had decided to revamp the venue. Inside the vast lobby they constructed a smaller bar venue. There was a proper stage at the one end of the room, about 1,5 metres above floor level, on one’s right as you entered the room. Immediately to the left of the entrance there was a long, quite elegant bar that ran down the entire length of the room. Inside the main concert hall a concrete pit had been constructed right in front of the stage, between the last row of seats and the stage -- maybe it was originally the orchestra pit -- to provide space for dancing.
A double bill opened this new concept. Mango Groove played in the Main Hall and The Flaming Firestones rocked the house in the bar venue. Mango Groove had been booked into the Three Arts for something like a week of nightly performances, which seemed incredibly stupid to me. At the time they were a little known Johannesburg act, verily (with the benefit of hind-sight) on their way to the top but still some ways off. I went to see the Firestones on a weekend night and if Mango Groove drew three hundred people it was a lot. In a club three hundred people would have been a sell-out crowd. In the Main Hall of the Three Arts such an audience must have seemed dismally small. A few years later Mango Groove easily sold out the 8000 capacity Good Hope Centre. I am almost sure that they did not insist on playing nightly for a week.
The show set up was also peculiar. The two bands did not play consecutively but competed for the audience. I caught Mango Groove’s first set and went back to the bar during the interval. By the time Mango Groove’s second set was about to start, the Firestones were on stage in the bar so I stayed for their three sets and completely missed the rest of Mango Groove’s show.
My reluctance to go back inside the Main Hall was only partly due to my desire to listen to Nico Burger play. Mango Groove had not impressed me. The music was too fussy not very together and not impressive. If I’d been asked to predict their future I would have said that Mango Groove would slink back to Johannesburg with their collective tails between their legs, play a few more gigs and then break up due to lack of long-term commercial potential and record company backing, and that the Claire Johnston would attempt a solo career. My prediction would have been wrong. Within a year Mango Groove was the biggest pop act in South Africa and remained so for a good few years until they hit the commercial ceiling any local pop act eventually came up against due to failure to gain an international audience. Then they broke up and now Claire Johnston does have a solo career of sorts – at least she’s released a solo album
On the night Nico played masterfully. The band’s repertoire was more or less the same as during the Clayton era but the different guitar style made a huge difference. Somehow the Firestones seemed to swing. After the first set the bassist introduced me to Nico who recognised my face from the past and we exchanged a few awkward pleasantries and I bought him a beer. I did not make an effort to befriend Nico but at every gig I attended I would at least say hello to him, we’d have a little chat and I’d buy him a beer. Early on Nico asked me to comment honestly on his guitar sound, the way the band sounded, the performance, etcetera. He did not want me merely to praise him or the band, especially when he knew he had been below par. Nico wanted accurate information, for example, is the sound balance right? is my guitar too soft or too loud? Taking my responsibility quite seriously, I resumed my old habit of standing in front of the stage on Nico’s side.
The Firestones gigged relentlessly. Nico once told me that he had made more money from this band than from any other band he’d played with. They played the Brass Bell in Kalk Bay quite often and one of their most memorable gigs took place there. By then Willem Fourie, coincidentally an almost contemporary of mine from Paul Roos Gymnasium in Stellenbosch, had teamed up with the band as guest trumpet player. The Brass Bell gig was a storming affair but the absolute highlight was the finale, a lengthy version of the old Muddy Waters show-closer “Got My Mojo Workin’. “ Jannie van Tonder on trombone and Willem Fourie formed a two-man horn section and the resulting brass driven frenzy blew the house down. This is what R & B was supposed to be like and very few local blues bands have ever achieved this height of gleeful, houserockin’ power.
After a while the pace got too much for Howlin’ Mervyn and he quit the Firestones. Willem Fourie, who’d been woodshedding on guitar in the interim, replaced Mervyn and he became the vocalist and second guitarist. Fourie is another musician, like Steve Louw, who I will admire for his ambition and drive to achieve his goals more than for his actual achievements or accomplishments. Willem Fourie is not a great vocalist either. After Howlin’ Mervyn’s pyrotechnics Fourie’s bland voice and initial lack of confidence as vocalist was a great let down. Even over time his vocals did not improve, remaining at best functional. In the beginning it was so bad that it seemed to me that Fourie actually sang better the drunker he got. During the first set he was hesitant and held back. By the third set he’d at least gained some confidence and managed to put slightly more conviction and power into his voice. But he has never been a truly convincing vocalist, much less blues singer.
Fourie’s guitar playing is much the same. He improved phenomenally over a period of about a year, from being a competent rhythm player and hesitant soloist to a player who had a command of his instrument and who knew the required blues clichés. He became an excellent rhythm guitarist but he never impressed as soloist. Though Fourie had the speed and dexterity and the licks, his solos were overlong, boring, made no impression and eventually seemed simply perfunctory. He seemed to have the impression that he had to play a sole on every song and hardly ever gave something to the song he was performing. I guess one would call him a hack. The contrast was particularly painful when Fourie and Nico were in the Firestones. Nico understood the dynamics of guitar playing, blues in particular, and always managed to make an interesting sound, to come up with little flourishes, brief, interesting ideas, that made one want to hear more. With Willem Fourie you wanted to hear less.
The Firestones’ final series of gigs was held upstairs at the Café Royal in Church Street, Cape Town. The Café Royal had once been a real hotel and comprised of three floors. The main dining room was on street level, and it was full of dark leather and wood, elegant in the old Colonial way. On the second floor there was a large open room with a bar at one end and you could have pub lunches there. The third floor was given over to boarding rooms. In 1988 - 1989 the owner and his girlfriend decided to turn the second story room into a club on weekend evenings. It was perfect because there was enough room for a decent stage and the bar facilities were already available. The stated concept was that gigs at the Café Royal were going to be in the early part of the evening, a kind of first stop of the night in Cape Town where it was a tradition that clubbing commenced only midnight. At the Café Royal the bands would start their first set at about 21h00 and the whole thing would wind down at about midnight. From there the ravers could go on to do some serious clubbing. It is one of the characteristics of Cape Town night-life that people only go out late, parties start no earlier than ten or eleven, and clubs get going even later, leaving one to stumble home at dawn. Inevitably the Cafe Royal turned into a one-stop spot for me during those lean periods when there was hardly a regular live music scene in Cape Town.
In the last year of its existence as music venue the Café Royal was run by a member of one of the hip bands at the time, and his aspirant glamour puss sex queen girlfriend, Chris Steyn, then a reporter at the Cape Times. She sat at a table just outside the entrance to the room, usually dressed in very short black dress, and collected the entrance fee. By then the bands were mostly “alternative” and attracted a young and hip audience, not exactly the retro-blues crowd of the Firestones.
The Firestones’ played their end-of-the-line-and-farewell series of gigs were Café Royal, including the absolutely bloody final one, which draw a very substantial crowd, possibly because there was no cover charge. The gig was also taped on video and audio. I have not heard of a commercial release of any Firestones’ material, not even cassettes sold at gigs, but I am sure some of this stuff must be available. Nico did once promise me a cassette but it never materialised.
After the demise of the Flaming Firestones Nico Burger once again dropped out of sight. In general the live music scene suffered somewhat due to lack of decent venues. The Café Royal burnt down, most probably an insurance scam if my between the lines reading of newspaper reports is accurate. Very few of the surviving clubs offered regular live gigs.
World-wide there was a renaissance of blues, with the likes of Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan being followed by a lot of white guys, some old rockers and some younger guns who either turned to the blues from rock or who were suddenly given publicity after years of obscurity. The same thing happened in Cape Town. The influence of the Flaming Firestones had spread far and wide Maybe the other musicians had seen how often the Firestones were able to gig and decided to forget the “original” approach to music in favour of jumping on this blues bandwagon to make a few bucks for a change.
A long running debate in this country has always been about the battle between good and evil in the music industry where good is represented by the bands who play “original” music (for this, read “songs we have written themselves”) and evil is represented by the bands who play “covers.” In this context the concept of “covers” is defined, at the lowest common denominator, as current hits of the day and some golden oldies, i.e. songs the audience will have heard before, either from the radio or because they own the album from which the song is taken. The cover bands are then more or less living jukeboxes.
The cover bands are seen as evil because they take work away from musicians who are prepared to write and perform their own creations. The latter are seen as artists while the former are merely hacks. The cover bands have a function because for the most part audiences prefer to hear music they already know, even if it is in a version by a cover band that will usually unimaginatively attempt to recreate the original as closely as possible. The audience does not want to listen to the band’s own songs because they will not have grown familiar with the material, unless they have already been following the band for a while. Also, the songs will almost certainly not include anything resembling a hit.
After the commercial success, for want of a better description, of the Flaming Firestones, the way was open for the deluge. I guess a whole bunch of people must have seen the light and were beavering away in their bedrooms or garages with copies of the blues-rock songbook -- Stevie Ray Vaughan, Z Z Top, et al.
The phoenix that arose in 1989 from the ashes of The Firestones was the Down And Out Blues Band. Rob Nagel was present and correct, playing the bass guitar as well as doing duty on mouth harp, and Willem Fourie was the undisputed leader guitarist and vocalist. By and by, Little Johnny Frick, younger brother of Clayton, joined as second guitarist and occasional vocalist, singing his own songs. It was a fine band but a lot less inspirational than the Firestones mostly because of Willem Fourie’s defects as musician.
The real deluge came the following year with the opening of the Smokehouse Blues Club in the premises of the Master Mariners’ Club in central Cape Town. The building was a four-storey construction at the corner of Shortmarket and Long Streets. The location was excellent. The building stood at the crossroads of what was then the centre of Cape Town’s nightlife. The Cadiz all night corner café and take away emporium was across the road. The Base, and its various successors, was situated in Shortmarket Street in the next block up from Long Street. The Playground club was located in the basement of the building the Smokehouse occupied. Idols nightclub was a couple of shop-fronts away from the Cadiz, on Long Street. In its heyday Idols was the high-tech, elitist hangout of the Cape Town glitterati. The metalheads and Goths hung out at The Stage, across the road from Idols.
The Master Mariners’ Club occupied the entire fourth storey of its building and there was access to the roof. The Club was in the shape of a hollow square around a substantial central shaft. There was a main room where the bands played, with a small corner bar. There was a larger, more traditional bar, and two rooms with pool tables. I’d first entered its hallowed portals way back in 1985 when the venue hosted a punk/alternative/Goth type festival. Before the Smokehouse opened its doors on a Friday night, the Master Mariner’s Club was not a regular rock venue. Every now and then enterprising individuals or organisations organised once off events there, mostly to do with the alternative scene in Cape Town, featuring the type of bands that could not get gigs anywhere else and who were never heard of again. The UDF and Anti Conscription Campaign also had at least one big gathering there with the likes of Basil “Manenberg” Coetzee’s Sabenza band headlining over a motley variety of punk, reggae, jazz and mbaqanga bands.
The Smokehouse Blues Club was the brainchild of Rob Nagel and Clayton Frick, who’d returned from wherever he’d been. The publicity material stated that the organisers wanted to present a Cape Town version of a real Texas blues club where you could play pool, have some ice cold beers, just hang out and be cool and hear some smoking hot, down home blues, all at the same time.
The Smokehouse was a booming success from the beginning and by its demise it had become so popular that it was actually slightly unpleasant to go there because the air-conditioning was non-existent and the inner rooms became unbearably hot and stuffy when so many bodies were packed in to the main room. The Club operated only on Friday evenings and this was probably one reason for its success if you wanted to see the bands that regularly played there, you had one chance a week to see them.
The Down And Out Blues Band played at the Smokehouse but the band that opened up the Club was the Blind Clayton Blues Band. Clayton played guitar and sang and his band sounded like a stripped down Flaming Firestones but suffered from his bluesrock guitar technique. Clayton took his duties as ambassador of the blues very seriously. In the middle of each set he would halt proceedings so that he could haul out his hollow body semi-acoustic electric and sit down on a chair to play a little “authentic” slide guitar accompanied by his bassist who played a “classic” tea chest bass. If I remember correctly Dave Ferguson out of The Mavericks (a punkabilly band wherein Dave’s rather tall brother was the drummer) contributed harmonica to the acoustic set. Clayton would then do a very earnest imitation of his idea of country blues. His high-minded approach to teaching us more about the “real” blues was very laudable but somehow a bit pretentious in the light of the fact that his blues influences still seemed to be the white blues men who had imitated the black blues men.
Soon the explosion followed. Or, rather, the mushrooming of blues talent. The Down And Out Blues Band split up and spawned two other organisations. Rob Nagel and Johnny Frick formed the Blues Broers with the old time rocker Frank Frost on drums (he had once been in the “cover” band Black Frost) and a young guy called Agent Orange on keyboards. Willem Fourie formed the Southern Blues Band. Once the blues boom had died out Willem’s band became simply Southern Blue and turned to “original” rock.
Of all the “blues” bands that played the Smokehouse only the Blues Broers survived the blues boom and actually released cassette recordings and CDs. They were popular, remained basically true to their blues influences and deserved their popularity and success. The Blues Broers rivalled the Blind Clayton Blues Band in originality and power and had the distinction of featuring both an excellent mouth harp player and a keyboards player, where all the other so-called blues, bands were exclusively guitar oriented. Best of all, the Blues Broers actually realised that blues ensembles need to swing to be effective and this they accomplished in spades. Although Johnny Frick still insisted on playing a solo in almost every number he was more restrained and tasteful than his elder brother and virtually all his other peers. He was, I would say, from the Nico Burger school. He was a blues player, not merely a rock guitarist who chose to play blues because it was commercially expedient at the time. Although the Blues Broers performed a fairly orthodox repertoire of covers they also wrote their own material and, as time went by, brought more and more of their own songs into their repertoire.
A whole bunch of bands followed in the wake of these leading blues bands but after a while the Smokehouse seemed to be booking just about any band that could prove popular with the audience even though their links with the blues were extremely tenuous. There was for example the well-established Johannesburg based Band Of Gypsies featuring a diminutive, wizened sixty year old hippie type on bass guitar, whose son was the lead guitarist in the band and which who specialised in (natch) allegedly note perfect Jimi Hendrix covers. They could have been something in their early days but I found them boring and irritating, particularly when the guitarist aped some clichéd Hendrixisms at excruciating, repetitive length without showing an iota of Hendrix’s wit. Another example was Shrinking Railroad, a classic power trio led by guitarist/vocalist Sherrid van Rooyen. They specialised in power guitar histrionics and flat vocals and threw in one or two blues rock staples to cover all bases but the band fell into the trap that the songs blended into each other without any thing distinctive to distinguish the one from the other. All the guitar solos started to sound the same; once more a case of a guitarist who’d worked hard to learn all the chops and to have speedy fingers but who had no concept of taste, did not have any clue of dynamics in his soloing and hardly seemed to know when to stop. Van Rooyen later played guitar in B Movie, a funk-metal nine-day wonder “supergroup” based in Johannesburg. For about a year circa 1992 they were the hottest ticket on the SA rock scene with a song that became a 5FM hit but for one reason and another B Movie missed the boat. In the current climate of SA rock they might have done well.
The Smokehouse lasted into 1992 but then disappeared. Clayton probably left the country again.
Concurrently with the Smokehouse, the Café Royal was still featuring live music and it was here that the re-emergence of Nico Burger took place.
This time he was the guitarist for a bluesy, rock band called Any Driver. The deriving force here was John Rautenbach, known as the rock’n’roll dentist, who wrote most of the songs, played bass and sang one or two of them. The sound was akin to All Night Radio except for one major difference: this band had a killer vocalist. The unique selling point was one Mariska, a sexy, blowzy, zaftig blonde singer with a very powerful blues type voice. She was not merely a belter but could really carry a tune. Mariska was also a sex symbol in short, tight black or white dresses. This was almost like Sweatband. The other good thing was that Rautenbach actually wrote songs that were tuneful and memorable and were a joy to listen to; a number of them had hummable choruses. Nico was once again a delight. He mixed subtlety with power, flashiness with taste. I caught Any Driver as often as I could and they were nearly always excellent.
Unfortunately Any Driver did not make it commercially. They released no records or tapes and folded after a year or so. Nico once again dropped out of sight.
Nico popped up again in 1994 as guitarist for the Blues Broers after Johnny Frick had left the band. The Broers had to find two replacements because Johnny had also been the principal vocalist. The vocalist they found was one John Mostert, also a relic of earlier rock’n’roll and R & B days. Both the new guys made their debut at a new blues club Rob Nagel founded, or at least tried to establish, in the upstairs room of the Kimberley Hotel at the corner of Roeland and Buitenkant Streets. This venue was smaller than the Smokehouse, but it had the facility of a bar adjacent to a substantial room and there was a balcony overlooking Roeland Street for those hot, stuffy summer nights. I went to the opening gig, which was packed, and maybe to one more night (this was also only a one night a week club) but did not return and I do not think the club survived its first month. Maybe the blues boom had died out (there were certainly a lot fewer blues bands around), maybe the venue was too far away from the locus of Cape Town night action which had shifted to lower Loop and Waterkant Streets. If I remember correctly the last gig I attended at the Kimberley Hotel was headlined by a blues band featuring the young Albert Frost, son of Frank Frost, the drummer for the Blues Broers. Albert had had his apprenticeship as second guitar behind Nico Burger and replaced him in the Blues Broers.
At his Blues Broers debut Nico was slightly hesitant, he somehow did not have the confidence he’d had earlier in his career and his playing was a disappointment. John Mostert was not much better. I suppose he can hold a tune but to this day he is an unimpressive, non-descript vocalist. Once again, if one is blues singer one should at least project some power, commitment and conviction into the proceedings. Mostert is totally unconvincing and an almost embarrassing weak link.
Nico did not last very long in the Blues Broers. Apparently he was fired because of his drinking problem. He had already sunk low into the bad habit of drinking to excess, which is particularly bad when it means that you become unreliable, because you fail to attend rehearsals or are late at gigs and because your fellow band members can never be sure of the quality of your performance at the gig. inevitably they see that your abilities have been negated by drink and that your performances are at best mediocre, uninspired but most probably just sloppy and unacceptable.
Albert Frost who was a blues guitarist from the Nico Burger school, restrained and tasteful, ably filled Nico’s shoes in the band. Frost played blues not blues-rock. After a while he too seemed to succumb to the dreaded guitar solo disease, taking a solo in almost every song where he plays the guitar (for a couple of songs he plays bass) and delivers insipid solos that interrupt the flow of the song rather than being integral to it, does not advance the song at all and quite often is just solo-by-numbers.
The last time I saw Nico was a week after his debut with The Blues Broers, at Rob Nagel’s house warming party in his brand new property in the Gardens. Nico sat at the kitchen with his girlfriend and a crony or two and got pissed on brandy and Coke. We had a banal, drunken conversation about music and careers and kind of promised to contact each other for more talk but we never did. I might have seen Nico at one or two Blues Broers gigs after that but then lost contact with him once he had been fired. I often wondered what had happened to Nico but since I hardly know anybody who knew him, I could not and did not inquire as to his whereabouts. It was almost by coincidence that I recently heard that Nico had died about 18 months before I started writing this piece.
Obviously it is now difficult to say for sure whether or Nico was as good as I think he was. He might have been mediocre compared to some of the really great guitarists of the world. But somehow I am not convinced that Nico Burger was merely ordinary. He was my first real live guitarist idol. I had developed a great admiration for Clapton’s work in Cream especially, loved Wilko Johnson’s style and also had a regard for Hendrix although I never admired his playing as much as I revered Clapton’s work. Clapton’s Cream stuff was simply sublime; desert island disc quality. Nico Burger’s guitar playing struck me the same way. Maybe Clapton was his model. I’d listened to Nico a lot over the years, at every opportunity I had, and I never grew tired of his playing except right at the end when he was clearly playing below his strength. Other guitarist quickly irritated me especially when they insisted on playing lengthy, boring, empty solos. Nico practised economy. Almost every solo had significance and was worth the price of admission. He had a killer tone, a relentless rhythm attack, knew something about dynamics, excelled at adding value to the impact of a song, he worked at incorporating bits of virtuoso business in his solos (a technique which by itself made him different from the run-of-the-mill guitarists) and he succeeded in making every solo count and sound fresh.
Nico Burger deserved greater recognition than he got as a Cape Town based musician. I think there was one so-called guitar showdown between him and John Mair. The latter was far more adept at the lengthy, flashy statement and ostensibly could run rings around Nico. And I must admit that in general I enjoyed Mair’s playing because he too had good taste and knew that one did not have to play a solo every time out. This was kind of undermined by the “Johnny B. Goode” gross-outs and that is where Nico’s economy of playing had the edge. Mair had lapses of taste, or at least he wanted to showboat some of the time whereas Nico never did -- the song was always more important.
I guess Nico Burger was probably too self-effacing but here too he was unique. Virtually all the guitarists in Cape Town, especially in the blues and rock genres, were also front men. He was almost alone (Max Mykula is still the only other example that comes to mind) in being simply the guy in the background who might have been quiet, almost invisible, but without whom the band would founder. He was vitally important in driving the whole enterprise, and to make it unique, but he did not feel it necessary to step up to the front of the stage to strut about self-importantly. I would like to think that this was due to his quiet confidence in his abilities. As they say, he let his guitar do the talking and knew that one does not always have to shout to make an impact. Nico Burger was confident enough of his own talent and ability to be content to be the backroom engine.
OTIS WAYGOOD BLUES BAND OTIS WAYGOOD BLUES BAND (1970)
Otis Waygood was a blues band comprised of Rhodesian Jews (interesting to ponder on the implications of a time when this was possible) who famously came down to Cape Town on a whim and in a battered VW Combi, got a “guest artist” slot at the 1969 Battle Of The Bands (apparently an annual big deal in Cape Town in those years) and became an overnight sensation for their raw, exciting, stomping blues rock. They stayed in South Africa for two years and managed to release three LP’s before various realities of the Southern African situation caught up with the band members and the band dissolved/relocated to the UK.
In January 2000 the RetroFresh division of Benjy Mudie’s Fresh Records label re-released the band’s first album, Otis Waygood Blues Band (1970), on CD. All the tracks had to be digitally remastered from an original vinyl LP because, as is the case for many other South African releases of the Sixties and Seventies, the master tapes were destroyed in a fire at EMI Records’ warehouse. The wonders of the digital technology are such that to my ears RetroFresh might as well have had the master tapes to work from. Clive Calder’s 1970 production is sympathetic and the vocals and individual instruments are crystal clear and crisp, the sound mixes are good, the arrangements are inventive and one certainly gets a good idea of what the fuss was about when people raved about them as legendary live performers.
For some reason RetroFresh decided not to reproduce the original “none blacker” sleeve (perhaps too redolent of Spinal Tap) but the re-issue sleeve is great anyway, a kind of Meet The Beatles homage. It is the kind of restrained and elegant design job that adds to the allure of the band and that truly entices you into buying the CD, and that goes for the inlay card as well as the booklet with a Rian Malan-penned band biography and a number of “rare” photographs.
There is a sticker on the CD jewel case cover that promises bonus tracks and they turn out to be three tracks from the band’s third and final album Ten Light Claps And A Scream (1971). This is slightly disconcerting. Does it mean that the third album will not be re-issued? Otis Waygood Blues Band is such a strong collection that one wants to hear the rest of the band’s output. Presumably there are no surviving outtakes from the recording sessions but surely there must be some live tracks? Such a powerful performing band must have been recorded in performance somewhere along the line.
The songs are a mixture of blues classics and compositions by band members. They even do the typical “Trad/arranged by ..” thing with a song they call “Watch’n’chain” (in 1977 Foghat recorded a version thereof as “Chevrolet”) and another song “Wee, Wee Baby” (first recorded by Chuck Berry as “Wee Baby Blues” as the flipside to his first hit “Maybellene”) but such is the creative process of the authentic blues folk tradition. John Renbourn is credited as the composer of “I Can’t Keep From Crying” but in this case he could have been responsible for no more than the slow, brooding arrangement of the song performed by Otis Waygood. It is actually yet another “traditional” Negro spiritual that must have been in the repertoires of many a white blues performer. The Blues Project recorded a faster version for their second album in 1967, and released a variation as a single.
The original album opens and closes with short, stomping performances, respectively “You’re Late, Miss Kate” (in the tradition of “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”) and “I’m Happy” (the closest Otis Waygood gets to a Canned Heat-style boogie, with Rob Zipper doing a passable Bob “the Bear” Hite impersonation.) In between there are the blues mentioned above, as well as Sony Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” which is taken at a faster pace than the template and could also be a Canned Heat take-off, two fine, original blues called “Moving On” and “Better Off On My Own,” and “Fever,” the single off the album and apparently a live highlight.
Overall the performances are accomplished, inventive and energetic late Sixties blues rock, with a very prominent bass guitar but with articulate and sensitive blues guitar playing, flavoured with plenty of flute, blues harp and on occasion a horn section. Rob Zipper is as good a blues singer as any White man of his generation and, no doubt because of the shared Jewish roots, there are echoes of Peter Green in his more raucous moods, or Bob Hite from Canned Heat. There is a strong European feel to the music and the flute contributions have a lot to do with this, as if Otis Waygood were influenced by the Dutch or German progressive blues bands of that era, and one is equally strongly reminded of the blues sound of very early Jethro Tull.
The three bonus tracks, recorded about a year later, are merely blues-based and lean more towards heavy rock, with a phased and rather muddy sound, heavy riffs, distorted vocals and with the lead guitar buried in the mix. Interesting as a progression but not nearly as exciting as the first studio outing.
All in all, this re-issue is a superb package, from album sleeve to music. It is truly wonderful that someone is taking the trouble to re-release music of this quality from an era that is well and truly gone.
THE BLUES BROERS SHARP STREET (Guava Records 1995)
From The Blues Broers website: SHARP STREET (GR003)
Cooking instructions: Just take one Sharp Street CD and add Hi-fi. In 1995 the Blues Broers risked ending up like so many local bands; seen but not heard, so they made the sound decision to go digital.
In an eclectic mix of musical ingredients they motor through Soul City in ‘Automobile,’ frolic with the jazz of ‘Blue Dolphin’ and boogie down to new depths of depravity in ‘Submarine.’ With the spine-chilling guitar playing of Albert Frost and a Hammond organ so loud your neighbours will call the Police, Sharp Street is a recording to satisfy most appetites. Even though it's been on the shelves for a few years it still tastes as fresh as the day it was mixed. Try some today. You can download selected excerpts.
"Definitely worth a place in any blues collection."
Phil Wright - Music Source Magazine, November 1995
"I was hooked . . . and remain so."
Richard Haslop - Scope magazine, September 1995
"Sharp Street is a must for every Blues Broer and sister."
Coenie de Villiers - De Kat Magazine, January 1996
"Some fine playing here."
Bruce Iglauer - Alligator Records Chicago (letter), December 1995
The Blues Broers was one of the offshoots (in a manner of speaking) of The Flaming Firestones, the band that was the forerunner of the early Nineties blues boom in Cape Town. The founder members of The Blues Broers were Rob Nagel (bassist and blues harpist and occasional saxophone player in All Night Radio and the blues harp player and occasional vocalist and guitar player in the Flaming Firestones) on bass guitar and blues harp, Frank Frost, a veteran of the Cape rock scene (amongst others Black Frost) on drums, John Frick (brother of Clayton Frick, guitarist vocalist of the Flaming Firestones with whom Johnny played in its last days) on guitar and vocals and Simon “Agent “Orange who plays keyboards and also sings a couple of songs.
The Blues Broers was probably the best of the new crop of so called blues bands who popped up after the demise of the Flaming Firestones and who were motivated by the founding of The Smokehouse blues club. Most of these bands appeared to operate under the misguided assumption that blues was originated by Stevie Ray Vaughan and ZZ Top and on the face of it they showed almost no inclination to investigate any earlier form of blues, apparently so ignorant of blues history as to refer to their versions of Vaughan’s version of the Howlin’ Wolf tune “Commit A Crime” as “a song by Stevie Ray Vaughan.” These musicians were essentially hacks who believed in the necessity of endless guitar solos in every song, and to my mind they were simply rockers who were happy to turn to “blues” because at the time the Smokehouse was about the only Cape town venue to book bands but would allow in only blues bands. The definition was never all that purist and by and by it was more or less simply a rock venue although biased towards blues rock.
Although they also had the Z Z Top and Stevie Ray Vaughan roots (and tunes) The Blues Broers did their best to be a proper blues band that swung like the best off the Chicago bands of the Fifties and in this aspiration they were greatly assisted by the two factors that made them unique amongst their peers: firstly Rob Nagel’s blues harp virtuosity and secondly Agent Orange’s keyboards. The other blues bands (except for Clayton Frick’s band that featured a harp player from the punk rockabilly band the Mavericks) were built around guitarists with Stevie Ray Vaughan fixations. The two elements of blues harp and keyboards plus the general tasteful and non-grandstanding playing of successive guitarists contributed to a sound that made The Broers almost sound like an authentic house rocking ensemble from the Southside of Chicago. There was also a brief period when they had a horn section and even backing singers, the Soul Sisters, to emphasise the “authenticity divide” between The Blues Broers and their peers.
The Broers have been going for about eleven years now, a kind of a record for a Cape Town band, although there have been regular personnel changes, mostly on the guitar side, like a South African version of John Mayall’s various groups. Johnny Frick was the first to go and was replaced by the late great Nico Burger on guitar only and John Mostert as vocalist. I saw the first gig of the newly reconstituted Broers at the Kimberley Hotel in Roeland Street where they were also attempting to re-establish a blues club, the Smokehouse having gone belly up sometime before when Clayton Frick, the driving force behind the club, left South Africa. Nico’s playing was a bit uncertain but was. as always, still a pleasure to hear. It quickly became clear though that Mostert was not much of a vocalist; he certainly did not have the pipes or the authority to be much of a blues singer, and he did not have much stage presence either. As it happened, Nico’s tenure as Blues Broers guitarist was short-lived. I believe he was kicked out of the band because of drinking problems (which ultimately led to his death not too long afterwards), to be replaced by Albert Frost, Frank Frost’s then teenage son. John Mostert remained with the band until fairly recently when he too left (or was asked to leave) and now fronts the Boulevard Blues band. In the meantime Frank Frost has also died.
Albert Frost was still at school when he started playing with the Broers as second guitarist behind Nico Burger but he has now matured into a great player in the Burger tradition (if one may call it that) where sensitivity, subtlety and taste are more important than guitar histrionics. He has backed Koos Kombuis (the Blou Kombuis live album), plays with Agent Orange in a band called Frosted Orange, has played guitar on a number of sessions and also goes out on his own.
Sharp Street was released in 1995 and was the first CD on the band’s own imprint, Guava Records, coming after two cassette tape only albums Shake Like That and Damn Fine Mojo. The Blues Broers have since released two more CD’s, Been Around and The Cellar Tapes, the latter consisting of live recordings from the Hidden Cellar venue in Stellenbosch.
Commendably the songs on Sharp Street (named for Willem Moller’s Johannesburg studios where the songs were recorded) were written by either Rob Nagel or Agent Orange; with three songs written by partnerships within the band. It seems that the mission was to record a blues album with as much authenticity as possible and without the trappings of rock influence and they have succeeded in this endeavour. Unfortunately the result is that one’s overall impression of the album is that it lacks spark; it is just too damn tame. It is possibly the politest blues album I have ever heard and is certainly for the most part no more than workmanlike “white blues.”
It is only from about the fourth track in that the band starts to kick a little ass and that one’s interest is aroused. All through the album one invariably longs for the guitar to let rip, for Agent Orange to really pound the keyboard with a two fisted punch or for one of the vocalists, but especially John Mostert, to break loose with a real blues roar. Possibly Willem Moller, producer and engineer, must shoulder some of the responsibility for not being able to produce a more lively outing and for quite often inexplicable mixes that blunts Frost’s or Orange’s contributions.
Neither John Mostert nor Agent Orange, the two main vocalists, have strong voices but Orange at least tries to inject a certain sly ribaldry into his renditions of his own songs, but neither he nor Mostert have the necessary blues colouring in their voices that is so vital to invest the material with authority. Mostert in particular represents a very firm “no” answer to the perennial question “Can The White Boys Sing The Blues?” His voice is so bland that one doubts whether he has ever had the blues. There is nothing distinctive, or even just quirky, about his timbre or phrasing nor is there any power or passion. If ever I’ve heard any singer “going through the motions,” then it is John Mostert.
The instrumentalists perform virtual academic blues, a pastiche of the blues, and as a result the tracks that grab one’s attention stand out mostly by comparison with the weaker material. Albert Frost is a fine guitarist and can be counted on to play without bombast and it is good that he doesn’t rely on second hand Stevie Ray Vaughan mannerisms but even so, after a while one yearns to hear a bit more of the fire and passion that blues playing should show.
The album opens with something of a Rob Nagel hat trick composition-wise in that he wrote all three opening tracks. The first number is “My Automobile” which is yet another car’n’sex song with obvious Z Z Top roots but where the Texas boys would have made the song sound like a Ford Mustang, the Broers’ instrumental reticence and particularly John Mostert’s almost disinterested vocal makes it sound like a 1965 model two door Ford Cortina. “My Automobile” could have been a killer opening cut if the band had put a bit of muscle into their playing and if Nagel had sung his own song (in fact he should have sung all his own songs on this album.) As it is, Sharp Street’s opening salvo consists of three of the weakest blues I’ve heard in a long while and does nothing to inspire confidence in the future conduct of matters. The first cut on an album should grab you by the scruff of the neck and destroy all resistance. In this case “My Automobile” is actually so pathetic one wonders why white people are content to play the blues with such mediocrity. And the experience doesn’t get much better for two more tracks.
“Graveyard Train” follows. The immediate improvement is that it is a vehicle for Rob Nagel’s blueswailin’ mouth harp with no Mostert vocals in sight. Unfortunately for a song with such a title it is a rather soporific performance all round and sounds less a nightmare trip than a low-key senior citizens’ excursion to Forest Lawn. The rhythm section could have done well to pound out a strong, tight approximation of a train rhythm (and it is instructive to compare the Creedence Clearwater Revival “Graveyard Train,” definitely no relation, to The Blues Broers track) and a more fiery guitar solo would also have improved the performance. Rob Nagel does a nice virtuoso thing and manages to equalise, he just can’t net the game saving goal. I began to wonder why I was bothering to listen to this stuff when I had so many Muddy Waters CD’s I could enjoy.
Third track in is “Dolly Mae” (not exactly the name one would associate with a blues man’s cheatin’ woman; sounds more like a Hillbilly girl) with yet another lacklustre John Mostert vocal and though he bemoans being cheated and lied to by the eponymous femme fatale he does not convince the listener that he is at all stressed out by her shenanigans. As I’ve said before, one gets the impression that Mostert has never had the blues. He is really going through the motions here, admittedly with possibly the weakest lyric on the album, but one desperately wishes for some semblance of emotional connection with the unhappy situation he is singing about. The only saving grace of the performance is Albert Frost’s at times quite vicious guitar playing; he sounds as if he is really the one who is pissed off at the woman and is intent on making up for Mostert’s indolence. And that is the sadness: it would have been a good little number had the vocals been any better.
So, just as I am getting really fed up with the blues-by-numbers I’m being subjected to, up pops Agent Orange’s first tune, “No-one’s Going To Take Me Lying Down,” and my interest is rekindled. It is a good lyric, a sardonic reflection on the life he’s escaping, sung with enthusiasm and with energetic backing (although the slide guitar filigrees could have been more sharply defined.) It sounds so much better than “Dolly Mae” almost simply because John Mostert is nowhere near it, but not only for that reason. Agent Orange sings his own lyrics with conviction and maybe this is why, weak voice apart, Mostert falls short: he cannot bring true conviction to Rob Nagel’s lyrics. Plenty of “traditional” blues have pretty trite and clichéd lyrics, if one gets right down to it, but they are redeemed by the performance of the blues man or woman who at least sound as if they sing, and play, from the depths of a very real, ancient deprivation. They have the blues, whether genuinely or by transmitted convention, and they can communicate this feeling to their audience. This is also the difference between Mostert and Orange: the first simply narrates the words of someone else’s song but brings nothing more to the party, certainly not commitment; the latter sounds as if he believes in the song and thereby persuades the listener to believe in it also.
Next up Rob Nagel deals “I’m A Wildcard,” a Z Z Top homage/parody/rip-off, his sole vocal turn on this album. It is jolly good fun though and the second of a three song combination punch in the centre of the album, being followed by “Glove,” another Agent Orange number with the most authentic Hubert Sumlin style rave up of a Chicago blues riff on the album and arguably its highlight with the winning combination of strong playing, good lyrics and exuberant vocals. This song deserves to be a South African blues classic.
After the visceral excitement of “Glove,” the boys in the band decide to show us their serious side and their serious chops with the smooth, jazzy instrumental “Blue Dolphin,” possibly a subtle homage to The Green Dolphin restaurant and live jazz venue in Cape Town’s V & A Waterfront. Pleasant but inconsequential music for a retro cocktail lounge.
“Electric Train” comes rolling up next and is just about the most cabaret-like number on the album with Agent Orange’s semi-humorous observations on characters seen on the train. In concert the performance featured strong stomping boogie woogie playing by Orange but this is sadly lacking here and would have greatly improved what is otherwise a lightweight number, filler actually, that is saved by Orange’s vocals. The idea of this slight tune being left to John Mostert is almost too ghastly to contemplate.
After a long and happy absence Mostert makes a reappearance on Rob Nagel’s “Nothing On The Blues,” a would-be blues standard. Alas not on the strength of Mostert’s version of it. It is a true regret that he was given the opportunity to muzzle to death with his gums this potential show-stopper of a song. This man should have never been in any self-respecting, aspiring blues band. Mostert also subjects the third last and penultimate songs on the album (“Can’t Come In The Door” and “Hell No,” Rob Nagel songs, all) to the same death by wet blanket. It is incomprehensible why he was even allowed into the studio unless he had contractual entitlements. Nagel should have sung his own songs; he couldn’t have done a worse job.
Fourth last track is the Agent Orange fantasy “Submarine,” (patently not a yellow one), a lascivious little naval ditty in the well-known blues double entendre tradition with mention of periscopes going up and “torpedoes” and so on. It is another fine jumping blues but lyrically, though fun, is a little too close to a jolly Music Hall knees-up for comfort.
Agent Orange is also responsible for the closing number “Magic Alice” which is not strictly a blues but rather a whimsical, psychedelic pop-rocker in the late Sixties English tradition complete with wah-wah guitar and a backwards voice at the end. It is an entertaining, macabre little song about a girl who strangles her mother with a rosary and it appears that the tale is narrated by the Big D (or the Big S) himself, calling his cute little demon home. Not a very strong closer but definitely a fun little number.
So, all in all, a curate’s egg of an album with highlights that stand out precisely because they languish amidst dross. In a perfect world Sharp Street will be re-issued with John Mostert’s vocals wiped and replaced by a decent singer. As it stands, the album does not deserve to be a classic example of mid-Nineties South African blues as performed by a bunch of White men unless it is meant to illustrate Sonny Boy Williamson’s famous observation on the British blues scene of the early Sixties: “these boys want to play the blues so badly and they play it so badly…”
It is a rock critic’s cliché to remark that a particular double album (this criticism originated in the vinyl LP era) would have been a better proposition if it had been reduced to a single disc. In the case of Sharp Street, the worthwhile tracks would make a decent EP.
One can contrast the 1970 Otis Waygood Blues Band album with Sharp Street, as an example of how excellent late Sixties style White blues can sound with committed playing and singing and sympathetic production. The Blues Broers would have been a totally different proposition if they’d had a proper vocalist, for example Howlin’ Mervyn Woolf who fronted The Flaming Firestones Mk I. Now, that is a band I’d like to hear on CD even if they too were not above indulging in blues rock bluster. Three vocalists! Two blistering harp players! A horn section! There must be some live tapes lying around in someone’s cupboard; maybe Rob Nagel has a selection, and with the current easy availability of the appropriate technology it should not be too difficult to create CD-Rs from such tapes. I guess one can but dream.
In the meantime we’ll have to be satisfied with The Blues Broers. Great name, though.
DELTA BLUE LIVE (Afrimusik, 1999)
There you are, a bunch of middleclass White musicians in one of the most middleclass towns in South Africa and you quite like the blues, in fact you like it so much you’ve learned to play it, learned some crusty old blues classics, formed a band, put on a live show at a local Theatre, recorded it and released the results as your debut CD. Your manager decides he’ll write the sleeve notes. Better yet, he will claim that Delta Blue “captures the spirit and authentic raw feel of the original 1940/50’s electric blues groups.” This is not exactly true. They sure can talk it but they do not quite walk it.
In brief, Delta Blue is the Blues Broers with a guy who can sing. This is perhaps being too unkind to these young bluesmen (and female drummer) from Stellenbosch but unfortunately that is the first impression one gets on listening to their efforts to “play at the blues.” Delta Blue dishes up a mixture of blues standards and three originals, with commendable earnestness and the good taste to err on the side of understatement rather than bluster. Unfortunately the band stills fall far short of the “raw authenticity” of a real blues groove and the vocalist, though he has a fine gravelly voice, and might some day make a great soul singer, is often not able to carry a tune. This band is still influenced more by the White blues interpreters, like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Lonnie Mack (whose “Oreo Cookie Blues” they perform), than the old Black guys who did it first. Maybe they shouldn’t take it all so seriously; the blues is as much about having a real good time as about lamenting that your baby’s done gone. Delta Blue brings nothing new or original to their interpretations and one wonders why they’re so po-faced about it all. I guess the earnestness and stiffness comes from a true desire to do justice to the material and maybe they’ll eventually learn to loosen up and swing. On the other hand, they’ve learnt their stuff from records and there probably is still no substitute for learning at the feet of the masters.
The guys, and gal, do best on their own material and Almuir Botha is sure a fine, tasteful blues guitarist. The cracks show in performances like their version of John Lee Hooker’s “In The Mood” (here called “I Am In The Mood”), which is a not very good facsimile of John Lee’s duet version with Bonnie Raitt, one of the steamiest blues performances ever. Delta Blue has no clue on how to convey the sexual voodoo of the song. On “Trouble In Mind” Gerald, the vocalist, struggles woefully to get a grip on one of the strongest, most hooky tunes in blues and he fails dismally.
There is nothing much wrong with earnest middle class White people who play the blues except that they should stop imitating what they palpably cannot imitate, write some blues that have meaning in their lives and have unselfconscious fun with it. Oh, and never again let on that you aspire to be classed with the likes of John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf.
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 clichés. 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 second half 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.
DAN PATLANSKY & THE MISSISSIPPI MUTHERS
STANDING AT THE STATION (2003)
Here we have another crew of South African musicians who have chosen to play the blues, the blues they’ve learnt from other people’s records and whose performances they are trying to replicate as best they can. We’re not talking about blues from the bottom lands of the Mississippi, despite the band name, and as is the case with so many aspiring local guitarists there is a good deal of Stevie Ray Vaughan influence and imitation in Patlansky’s playing; he has recorded his versions – too slavish to be called interpretations -- of “Empty Arms” and “Chitlins Con Carne.” Eric Clapton seems to be the other major influence if one goes by the renditions of “Hideaway” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” though there’s little of Clapton’s blues sound here. “Hideaway” starts of as a version of perhaps the nest known version but in due course Patlansky does a clever twist and turns it into a Stevie Ray Vaughan thing.
The sound mix is not too great. The stodgy rhythm section, in particular the plodding drums, are to far upfront and too loud while the electric organ is just about subliminal. In this jazz based Texas blues style – and really this applies to all blues – the rhythm section must swing and must be a subtle support for the guitar playing and not as loud, or louder. Patlansky’s playing is perhaps the purest, fluid, deep blues guitar I’ve yet heard in South Africa and even if the Vaughan sound is inescapable, Patlansky does not have the same relentless, overbearing attack. Even so he still tends to play in that same rush of cascading notes, the unstoppable flood of notes that can sometimes (especially with Vaughan) be impressive and irritating at the same time. It is for this reason that Patlansky’s take on “Sweet 16” is less interesting and not as successful as he would want it to be. King’s style is to play relatively few notes and to give every note count the maximum impact. Patlansky plays so frenetically that the avalanche of notes overwhelms the listener and possibly impresses, but dilutes the emotional effect. Patlansky’s young, weedy voice does not do much for the song either.
All in all it is a pleasure to listen to Patlansky, especially the lyrically slow blues playing on “Mississippi Muther Blues” and “Mongolius’ Blue Hanglider” (where Patlansky sounds as if he is trying to amalgamate ZZ Top’s “Blue Jean Blues” and Vaughan’s version of “Little Wing.”) Patlansky will be a monster guitarist, blues or otherwise, if he keeps on building on what he has achieved here and can transcend his influences, develop a truly unique style and can put a little swing into his own rhythm playing. The biggest drag of the album, after the rhythm section, is that Patlansky sounds as young as he is and his voice just is not up to the task of being a blues singer’s main instrument of conveying the deep, heartfelt emotion the blues is meant to channel to the audience.
The album seems to be the product of different recording sessions over a period; when listens to the sound mix and the improved musical confidence of the playing it sounds as if “Sweet 16” was recorded considerably later than, for example, “Empty Arms.” Patlansky works hard at what he does as bluesman but he is at his most comfortable as vocalist on the title track of the album. “Standing At The Station” is very reminiscent of the harmonic, country rock sound of the early Eagles and because it is not strictly a heavy blues Patlansky’s light voice suite the material and brings a strong pop sensibility and affect to the song. There is no sense here, as is the case on the blues tines, that Patlansky is reaching for something that is just beyond his grasp. The selection of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” for a blues album is conceptually a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately the performance does not do justice to the audaciousness of the choice or the song. Patlansky cannot get to grips with the tune and the neither the arrangement nor the playing is very strong or interesting or different enough to make one think of it as more than a novelty tribute to Clapton and, perhaps, the recently deceased George Harrison.
Pure blues albums by South African musicians is a rare species and it is therefore difficult to rate Patlansky with his peers. I’d say that in the dedicated blues field, that is, outside of blues-rock, he has set a high standard that will be difficult to beat. Now he must write his own material (“Mongolius Blue Hanglider” is an excellent route marker on the way forward), work hard to establish a unique, personal voice on the guitar and to get some voice training, and to get some blues, if he is going to insist on being a bluesman. And he should get himself a swinging rhythm section and maybe give his keyboard player more space in the mix.
My final comment is that the band name is as naff as it is inaccurate. These people do not hail from the Mississippi Delta and Patlansky’s style of blues has just about no connection with Delta blues. At this point he is still only a South African white boy who imitates mostly other white boys with a variation on the Texas blues style with inclinations to rock though I’ll concede that Patlansky is more true to a blues ideal than most.
This album is what one calls a promising debut. Now we’ll wait to see if Patlansky can improve his game a notch or two for the second album. He’ll need to take some singing lessons and learn to swing if he is going to persist in ploughing the blues furrow but I fear he’ll be content with the shallow kudos and financial rewards that with being a shit hot blues rock guitarist, where the audience applaud only the exciting guitar solos and care nothing for the songs.
DELTA BLUE INBLUESSTATION (Merchant Records, 2003)
The band came out of Stellenbosch with a po faced awfully “white” seriousness of purpose that was somewhat comical in its audacity and pretentiousness and even if there were a lot of promise there and an obvious sincerity, I for one thought that Delta Blue would be one more flash in the pan, one more product of the mid-Nineties rock explosion in Stellenbosch. After all, how many successful South African blues bands are there?
I once called Delta Blue a Blues Broers with a better vocalist but as of now Delta Blue has far surpassed even that mocking praise.
This is their third album and second studio effort. It features mostly original songs and a big ticket production and is not so much a blues album as a sure footed move out of the smoky juke joint to the soul room of the blues – the arrangements, and Gerard Clark’s voice, smack of mid-Seventies blues rock though the musicians do their best to keep to keep things swinging and subtle and there is no incipient hard rock bluster. It is perhaps no accident that the band covers “Muddy Water Blues,” the title track of a Nineties album by Paul Rodgers the singer for Free and Bad Company; there are moments when one almost expects a Bad Company rocker to come jumping out at you after the bluesy intro, but thankfully it never happens. The tasteful dynamics remain intact and the mood is never spoilt by the obvious crunchy mid-Seventies bluesrock riffs that are so fashionable nowadays.
The album is bookended by two bona fide blues and perhaps the intention is to illustrate how far the band has moved from imitation to mastery. The venerable “My Babe” is the opener and if the guy on mouth harp isn’t quite Little Walter the music still swings strongly and with much suppleness. One of the best pure “authentic” blues performances yet from a local act. The set closer is Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Mojo Hand,” a variation of the better known Muddy Waters composition “Got My Mojo Workin.’ “ The subtle pleasure here is the recognition of the nous to choose the more obscure alternative yet to end the set with a song that is almost the same as the song with which Muddy used to close his gigs for so many years. This type of intelligence is rare in music, let alone South African blues circles.
But, as is soon evident, Delta Blue have set out to be more than a blues band, that progression that was so sought after back in the days of the late Sixties blues boom where hard rock make-overs of blues standards were deemed to be progressive. Delta Blue’s idea of moving forward is the more appealing conceit of finding and mining the Southern sanctified soul roots that suit Clark’s voice so well – at heart he is a soul man, not a bluesman – with the melody and passion that come with the territory. These are no longer musicians playing at the blues, and not quite “getting it;” they have matured and have mastered the sensibility where the song drives the performance and where there is no longer the need for empty instrumental virtuosity. This makes Inbluesstation unique in South African music, especially blues rock, and it sounds the death knell of the guitar wankers who learnt their “blues” from Stevie Ray Vaughan albums.
An interesting feature is the presence of at least two famous blues song titles that turn out not to be the expected cover version at all. “Milk Cow Blues” is the first one; there are lyrical reference to the older song and a rambunctious chorus of “soul man”, and it seems as if the songwriter is just having fun with us, pointing back at blues influences but at the same time telling us he’s moved beyond downhome and has received the Lord’s gospel, though Clark is a tad presumptuous too since he clearly has not really been to church even if he thinks so. The second playful “steal” is “Boogie Chillen,” which is decidedly not the John Lee Hooker anthem and does not boogie much and one wonders why this celebrated song title was “loaned” for a song that does not at least pay homage to the Boogieman.
Delta Blue has turned away from blues purism and has produced probably the best old-fashioned blues-based rock & soul ever album released by White South Africans. Delta Blue has stepped up to the plate in the big leagues and has hit a solid home run.