Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Pretty Blue Guns at Zula

It's been a few years since the last time I dressed up and went down to Long Street for a bit of fun and it's been even more years since I've been to a venue like Zula Bar to watch a band kick out the jams.

This occasion was the launch of a brand new video for the Pretty Blue Guns song "Pills" from their debut album Cutting Heads. I really like this album, and rate it as one of the best local rock albums of the recent past, but then I am somewhat biased because I particularly like this type of gritty, rambunctious yet melodic blues rock and fell for the Pretty Blue Guns' sound from the first time I heard one of their tunes on a free CD with SL Magazine. They've been playing gigs all over the place but for practical reasons I have never been able to get to any. So, when Alette de Beer from De Plate Kompagnie advised me the band would be at Zula in Long Street, virtually on my doorstep, it was an occasion I could not allow to slip by.

There was a time, and unfortunately it really is very long ago now, that I was a fixture at just about every local gig in Cape Town and environs and was fully au fait with the bands on the local scene. These days I have to follow the goings on through press and Internet and just buy the albums of bands I like, or sometimes just out of interest. Local music is good and on par with what the rest of the world offers but even so there are few bands or albums that are truly great. Cutting Heads offers the sound, attitude and songs that grab me and I wanted to find out whether these boys can cut it on stage as much as they do in the studio.

At about 21h45 I arrive outside Zula in the back of Rikki cab, the kind that gives a pseudo-authentic London flavour to Cape Town and is very useful to get around in the city centre, especially on weekends when they are on call 24 hours a day. Long Street is buzzing. It usually does, in almost any kind of weather, on any given weekend night and this night is slightly more special, as Ghana is playing the USA in the first game of the knockout round of World Cup 2010. The importance of the game is that Ghana is the last African team left in the competition and has so far advanced further than any African team ever and stands a chance of moving one level up if they can beat the USA.

I'd never been to Zula before and for some reason I expected something high-tech and ultra sophisticated, and that shows how out of touch I am with the Long Street scene. A clue to the reality should be that Zula is in the space where The Lounge used to be. The Lounge, along with Mr Pickwick's, was the first Long Street hangout for the hip set, about 17 years ago, when it was just a place to go before or after clubbing, to have a drink and lounge. It was fairly primitive and as it hardly featured live acts I hardly ever went there.

There is a rope outside the front entrance, to organise major queues of people as and when they occur, I guess, like the ones one always see in movies, with a security on a high chair just outside the door. Just inside the door there is another dude with woollen cap pulled down low, who takes my money and gives me a stamp on the inside of my wrist. He meticulously ticks off that he's just admitted one more person. The entrance fee is R30 but he doesn't have enough change for the R100 note I give him and gives me R60 change. Oh well, I can afford the loss.

I bound up the stairs and find that most of the interior walls of the old Lounge have been knocked out. There is a bar immediately to my right, an open doorway in front of me and another doorway leads to a stage area to my left.

The place is packed. There are a couple of television sets tuned to the game between Ghana and the USA and in the main room a very large screen has been set up for a broadcast of the game. Rows of seats are in place in front of the screed, which makes the space look like a primitive small town town-hall movie show. The seats are fully occupied. Behind them there is a standing room only crowd. More people hang out on the balcony overlooking Long Street.

I turn to the bar and buy a single Jameson's on the rocks for R18. The barman who serves me greets me as if he knows me (as far as I know we rank strangers to each other) and for the rest of the evening he pours me a single Jameson's as soon as he sees me back at the bar with an empty glass. This is marvellous. I almost feel like some kind of VIP. Maybe it is because I am slightly overdressed for the place. I wear pointy boots, my tightest jeans, dark shirt and black leather jacket. This could well be an old fogey's misconception of how to be a sharp dressed man whereas the average punter at Zula is somewhat more casually attired.

I start taking stock of my surroundings. As I've mentioned, the Zula is just one big open space, with sprung wooden floors and walls painted red. I am immediately struck by the resemblance Zula has with the Indaba Project, then at the top end of Wale Street, where I'd spent so many nights back in the period 1986 to 1988. Zula is not high tech; it is not suave and sophisticated. It looks just like the cheap kind of club joints Cape Town used to have back in the old school days and the vibe is much the same, and even the types who hang out there, taking into account an apparent weighting towards tourists, are similar.

My guess is that I am about 30 years older than the average punter at Zula tonight and to a degree I feel just as alienated in my surroundings as I felt when I was in m late twenties and clubbing every weekend. One other weird thing is that, once the football is done, the music played by the DJ is mostly from the Sixties and early Seventies: there is Janis Joplin, Hendrix, The Doors, Led Zeppelin. The most recent act on the playlist is The White Stripes, and the hippest selection is The Stooges doing "1969" off their debut album.

The bad news is that the score between Ghana and the USA is tied after full time. I'd already mistimed my arrival by getting to Zula when there was still about 20 minutes of ordinary time play left. My heartfelt wish is that one of the reams should score before the end of normal time so that I would not have to wait through 30 more minutes of extra time or, God forbid, a penalty shootout. As it turns out, the game went into extra time and Ghana scores early in that period, yet the game has to go on for the full extra 30 minutes. Ghana beats the USA 2 - 1 and goes through to the quarter finals. Kudos to them, though I could not really give a damn.

The crowd at Zula, however, is extremely happy to see the Yanks beaten and an African team go through. Outside in Long Street passing motorists hoot, vuvuzelas honk and the party is on. Long Street is where it's happening.

Inside the Zula the first band of the evening sets up. In passing I must also mention that it is kind of peculiar to be at a place like this so early in the evening to listen to bands who'd undertaken to be done by 23h30. Back in the day one went out only at midnight. You may go to a pub during the early part of the evening, but the serious clubber waited until midnight to hit the nightspot of his or her choice.

Anyhow, Machineri (I have no idea what this arty misspelling signifies) is first up on stage. Machineri consists of a tall, thin woman with long blonde hair, loose shirt and tight jeans, playing a guitar and singing; a guy with lanky hair falling over his face, loose T-shirt and guitar; and a drummer. The band has taken the White Stripes, Kills and Black Keys affectation of eliminating the bass player to a new twist. There is no bass player but there are 2 guitarists. The woman's function with her guitar is to emphasise the bottom end, to give a bass guitar like effect, while the other guitarist riffs and plays lead. Furthermore the woman wails the songs over the top of all of this.

To be perfectly frank, I immediately actively dislike this crap. Though the woman has a strong voice, it is wasted on the tuneless rants that pass for songs. The riffing sounds like a cross-breed between boogie, blues, shoe gazing, funk and punk and that is not a compliment. I guess there is a structure of sorts and that the band has actually rehearsed this stuff but a lot of it sounds like they are making it up on the spot and not in a good way. There is a quote from Shakespeare about a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. This is Machineri. If this band ever becomes massive, I will probably look like a fool for dissing them like this but that's all right. They suck tonight and if they do not get some actual tunes together, or have more interesting arrangements, they will keep on sucking. And not in a good way.

Machineri walk off, and take half the drum kit with them. Then the various members of The Pretty Blue Guns shamble on and start setting up before we take a moment to watch the video being projected on the screen where we had just watched the football match. I know the song, "Pills, very well: a well tasty piece of sleaze rock. The video captures the feel of the song quite nicely with lots of sexy, sleazy, scuzzy imagery. The look is cinema verité, You Tube slice of home recording, very hip and unsettling. I wonder if MK, or any other local TV channel will ever play it, as it seems a tad risqué with its sex and drug references.

Once the visual are done the band launch into its set. Andre Leo is front and centre in loose T-shirt and tight pants that kind of look like leggings to me, and he leans into the microphone, one leg slightly raised and poised behind him as if he is about to rush into the audience. He is the front man and the star and I guess he knows it and plays up to it. A cute kid and he can sing and strum the six string. Brandon Visser is at the rear of the stage. He plays a Gibson 335 style guitar, is blonde and looks the somewhat overly plump side of stocky. The guy who stuffs his face with too many pies. He plays tasty lead guitar though, a bit of slide on "Devil Do" and just super confident blues rock rhythm. Greg Thompson is the second blondie in the band, affects a grunge like plaid shirt and shares the front of the stage with Andre Leo. He gets into his bass playing and throws as many rock star shapes as Leo does. Clearly he believes a bass player can be as glamorous as any lead guitarist and he is probably a bit of eye candy anyhow.

Lucas Swart plays drums in the background and I do not get a good look at him but he does his job quite efficiently.

Apart from Bruce Springsteen's "State Trooper" The Pretty Blue Guns play pretty much their album. After the first or second number the pedals in front of Leo malfunction and while this is being attended to Thompson and Swart get a drum and bass groove going on. The crowd is forgiving anyhow and do take the brief interruption in their cheerful stride. According to Leo he wants to get the slower songs out of the way so that the band can rock out and the audience can dance. I find this interesting because, as far as I can tell, the Guns basically play medium paced songs; some may be louder than others but essentially there is nothing that is that much more pacey than anything else.

"Devil Do" gets a slot mid-set, and there is a massed sing-a-long with participation from the team who put together the video, and damn me, but they look more like rock stars than the guys in the band. The audience also knows the words and sing them loudly. A great time is had by all. It should have been the final number. It's made to be the monster party jam at the end of a rousing set.

The band careens on, however, rocks out nicely and entertains us for an hour or so. No encores. It was kind of warmly nostalgic to see a band disassembling their drum kit, amps and cables after a gig. They have no roadies; this must mean they are still paying heavy dues. If I had my copy of their album on me I would have asked them to autograph it for me.

The crowd leaves the room, I have a final drink and then I leave too, pondering what this evening means to me in my life.

The Pretty Blue Guns play with an effortless power; they have an obviously charismatic singer who underplays his appeal but who should be a pin up on the local scene. They play a type of music that is way outside the current rock fashion and bring a lot of hip smarts to it. The tradition is very old and they seem to love and respect it and obviously see no reason why they cannot add to this tradition from their personal, and I suppose, South-African perspective. The vocalist from Machineri announced that the Pretty Blue Guns would be playing some blues for us. Maybe she was being ironic, maybe she has no clue what the blues actually is, but The Pretty Blue Guns do not play blues even if their song titles may contain the word "blues." They play a very exciting, innovative, contemporary blues rock that is neither self-important nor overtly ironic. If I knew what the boys listen to at home, apart from the influences mentioned on their webpage, I could tell you more about the role of blues in their respective musical educations.

Was this a great performance? Probably not. It was good and entertaining fun but it was also your basic club gig where you run through your repertoire for an audience who already knows your stuff and this means you do not have to work too hard to get their attention. The guys had fun, especially Leo, and they are professional and proficient. I would have liked to have heard them at their first gigs, to be able to track the improvement over time. I think they are now at the crossroads where they must come up with new material to perform at the gigs. The debut album is a year old. They need new songs. They need to progress. Bands of their stripe generally tend to be jam bands that play a lot of different songs in their sets, not just their own, to show off instrumental prowess. Pretty Blue Guns aren't there (yet) and maybe will never be. The current musical mode in South Africa does not encourage the concept of jamming. The older, more properly blues bands, and the blues based rock bands, always had guitarists who thought of themselves a hot shot enough to play solos in each song. In the popular rock music of today, the type practised by so many local bands, the guitar solo is not cool and just about absent from any song, no matter how many guitars there are in the arrangement.

My evening at Zula was very much a journey into the past on a psychological level as the venue, the crowd and the act on offer were all so very reminiscent of the Cape Town scene of the late Eighties. One difference is that those bands hardly ever released any recordings and the majority of the bands on the scene are now forgotten by everyone except for the fans. Another difference is that the type of joyous blues rock the Pretty Blue Guns play was not exactly the type of music one heard too much. We had All Night Radio and Any Driver and that was about it. The basic Eighties alternative band had more in common with Machineri, sound wise and conceptually, than with the likes of Pretty Blue Guns. The bands were very serious, very much intent on doing something different, not to fall into the perceived trap of "rockist" cliché and almost pathologically avoided rock, preferring instead to pursue a course of wilful difficultness, with the emphasis on the cult. Not only did they never make or release music videos, they barely released any recordings.

The local bands of my youth seemed not to care for commercial success or decided that anti-commercialism would be the most politically correct stance. My sense is that The Pretty Blue Guns not only want to have fun with their music but want as much commercial success as possible. I would want them to achieve commercial success though I am prepared to concede that they will most probably never be the Parlotones or Freshlyground or Prime Circle. And that is a good thing. Pretty Blues Guns are not like most of their peers and do not sound like most of their peers and they should remain as individual as possible.

Enough about the band, what about me? As I've mentioned, I felt a great deal of déjà vu tonight and not all of it is wonderful. When I did go clubbing on a regular basis I was very much alone and a loner and was utterly alienated from my life and surroundings and though I was compelled to go out at night, to go check out bands, almost just not to have to be at home, I hardly ever had fun going out. I went to the gig, danced my ass off, had a couple of drinks, spoke to no-one and went home alone. There was not much joy in this lifestyle.

At the Zula Bar those memories came back. Once again I was alienated from the other people in the crowd but this time it was mostly because of the age difference. I enjoyed the Pretty Blue Guns experience but beyond that the evening out was a bit of a chore. Will I ever go back to Zula? None of my friends hang out there (we are not of that generation anymore, and most of them never had that kind of inclination in the first place) and if there is no band that interests me, there is hardly any point going there.

Do live gigs interest me anymore? I almost want to say: no, they do not. I've done the small club gig and know the vibe. In 1997 and 1998 I made an effort to go to gigs in central Cape Town, mostly at The Purple Turtle, and was often quite irritated by the bare surroundings and primitive sound systems and that I was so much older than the other punters. I also went to a couple of gigs during the last year or so when The Brass Bell in Kalk Bay still had rock bands on a Saturday afternoon and saw some of the big names from that era, but the experience was disappointing when compared with the hey days of the Bras Bell some 10 years before. Then I stopped going out at night, mostly because I had not car and had no friends who had an interest in local rock. Over the last 12 years I've been to a handful of gigs and some of them were good, only because of the band and not necessarily because of the venue or the crowd or the other hassles of gig attendance one has to contend with.

Maybe I am too old for that shit. It's so much easier and more comfortable simply to buy the album and listen to it in the comfort of my own home.

1 comment:

Lucas said...

Thank you Neels, it's refreshing to read something written from the perspective of a person who has been on the "scene" long enough to have a broad perspective of how things go. Glad you enjoyed the show. Cheers