Friday, October 01, 2010

Albert Frost: Devil or God?

Albert Frost must be one of the premier session guitarists in South Africa today, and is also a star in his own right, I guess. The last time I saw him play was on the stage at De Akker in Stellenbosch as part of the Blues Broers reunion tour and then he was the epitome of stylish cool in a dark suit and black shirt and I guess it must be Armani, taking my cue from the indication on his Devils & Gods mini-album where it says he is sponsored by Emporio Armani. Damn! It's straight out of the tradition of sharp dressed bluesmen and jazzbos.

He plays damn fine guitarist too, either in the blues vein or as modern rocker and judging from this album he is a useful songwriter.

My connection with Mr Frost is twofold, one aspect from the mid-Nineties and the other from early 2003. this is how it goes.

In the mid-Nineties the very young Albert, still finding his feet as axman, joined the Blues Broers as second guitarist behind Nico Burger. Albert's dad was the late Frank Frost who drummed for the Broers. Young Albert was a tasty and unflashy guitarslinger who showed much promise. My recollection is that at first he stuck to rhythm guitar, and slowly but surely built up towards playing solos. Hs influences seemed to be Nico Burger himself, who was not a showboating type and who preferred making his licks speak volumes through their precision and impact. For the rest Albert probably also dug early Eric Clapton and Peter Green and perhaps Mike Bloomfield and, as I learnt much later, Jimi Hendrix.

After Nico left the band Albert replaced him and became the man. He is the guy you hear playing the six string all over the Blues Broers' CD albums. He is the guy who, along with Simon Orange, who gave the band that edge so many other local so-called blues bands lacked, and still lack. They had a sophistication of attitude, attack and sound that updated the somewhat clichéd blues sound and brought a touch of psychedelia to the purist tradition.

I followed the Broers for a long time and rated all of their guitarists very highly for different reasons but in a sense John Frick, Nico Burger and Albert Frost were of a piece in their approach in the context of the group. Each of them served the song and supported the other guys and when it was time to solo, they made their stand with a sense of melody and timing and subtle power that impressed more and more as time went by.

Although I will concede that Dan Patlansky is probably phenomenally talented his obsessive homage at the altar of Stevie Ray Vaughan really grates. To paraphrase the comment on Jack Kerouac, that what he did was not really writing but just typing, I want to say that Patlansky is not really playing the blues, he just acts out what he believes blues to be. Obviously I cannot truly tell whether Albert Frost is a bluesman through and through, and his prodigious achievements as session musician probably means that he doesn't, but he sure as shit sounds like one when he plays the blues. To put it another way: I would bet that Frost can imitate Stevie Ray Vaughan as well as Patlansky can but that Patlansky could never quite sound like Frost.

The second connection came about when Albert Frost released his debut solo album, Catfish in 2002. At the time I subscribed to the online magazine SA Rock Gazette and Carina Laubscher was contributing her unique voice and views on the musicians she encountered in Pretoria and Johannesburg. She wrote a piece on Catfish and made it known that it could be ordered from her. I would have bought it just because it was a blues album from a guy I respected but Carina also praised it unreservedly. As it seemed that the album was not available in the shops I e-mailed her to request a copy. From this innocuous enquiry a steamy, long distance romance of sorts developed, completely unexpectedly. To me anyway. It was one of the weirdest things ever to happen to me: that a woman could declare lust for me simply because of an e-mail exchange and then some phone calls. The thing never went beyond being a tenuous long distance interaction. If I had been braver it could have developed but I was also extremely cautious about getting involved with someone who could fall for me, in a manner of speaking, simply because I wrote alluring e-mails.

Anyhow, Carina sent me the Catfish album and I wrote an appreciation of it as well. The set is divided into electric and acoustic and is for the most part composed of covers, except for 2 versions of Frost's own "Kammakastig Land" and he does a bit of Hendrix, a bit of Stevie Ray Vaughan and a bunch of other electric blues artists. The solo acoustic tracks are hot as successful as the electric tracks because they sound too rushed and lack the power of the Frost trio. "Kammakastig Land" is a great song, though not particularly a blues tune and it would fit in well with anything else on Devils & Gods.

Albert Frost has not defined or restricted himself as strictly a bluesman in the same way Dan Patlansky has, and he is probably better off for it, especially because Patlansky additionally defines himself by his ability to "do" Stevie Ray Vaughan and this is severely limiting. If you've heard one Patlansky album you've pretty much heard then all, though True Blue is a bit of an exception due to the varied fare on offer. On the other hand Albert Frost has refused to be tied down to one signature style. This has a lot to do with his role as boss session guy where he has to play the style that fits the artist he backs and to my mind this ultimately makes him far more talented than Patlansky.

Blou Kombuis (2000) is an exciting live collaboration between Koos Kombuis and Albert Frost where Kombuis does a bunch of his hits, playing his acoustic guitar with electric backing by Frost who provides the light and shade that subtly fleshes out some bare bones performances by a man who can sound pretty boring just by himself. It sounds as if a lot of fun was had by the two guys on stage and for all I knew Albert was just vamping improvs behind Kombuis.

Arno Carstens formed New Porn after the first hiatus of the Springbok Nude Girls and released Another Universe (2003) as a solo album (perhaps because the band name was a tad risqué) with Albert Frost as the guitar master of a very fine, powerful modern rock band that blew me away when they played at Wellington in October 2004, headlining over Afrikaans acts like Skallabrak and Akkedis. The other bands sounded kinda rinky dink compared with the monolithic power of Arno Carstens' backing band. This is where I realised that Albert Frost was no mere blues wannabe but possibly the most versatile guitarist active in South Africa today. The album is every bit as powerful and the guitar parts are as inventive.

From there it is a straight musical line to Devils & Gods even if a couple of years separate the two albums. The music is a mixture of what I like to think of as slightly lysergic rock with pop smarts and a little blues just for old time's sake. The craft and nous lie in the ability to make magic with a stringed instrument yet also being able to write a decent tune and good lyrics. The words are not completely cliché free, but they sound honest and deeply felt and the way Albert Frost sets his guitar on stun most of the time more than makes up for any lyrical shortcomings. I am not a car aficionado and it would perhaps be silly to use a vehicular metaphor to explain what I mean, but to me this album is Albert Frost in a muscle car, not yer obvious Ferrari or Lamborghini or Porsche; perhaps a 1970's Mustang, perhaps a vintage Bugatti, where design, function, style and power make a hugely powerful package that is undeniably much more than the sum of any set of parts.

I like this album a lot, even given that I was prepared to like it no matter what even before I listened to it. Where Patlansky's albums tend to be disappointments because I expect so much more, Albert Frost delivers more than expected.

It is my hope that he will keep delivering superlative music for years to come.