Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Delta Blue Suffers From Inbluestation

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 was 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.

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