Sunday, August 28, 2011

Mango Groove

in the late Eighties and very early Nineties Mango Groove and Johnny Clegg were the two most commercial South African acts in what one could loosely call the rock field. Both of these acts in succession sold out the Good Hope Centre, then the premier (and only) large venue in Cape Town and surrounds for such popular entertainers.

Not so coincidentally both Mango Groove and Johnny Clegg were proponents of a style that combined the best of "international" rock or pop and local flavours. In Clegg's case it was Zulu guitar music and mbaqanga and in Mango Groove's case it was marabi, a South African twist on big band jazz and with the colouring of a penny whistle as sweetener. Claire Johnston, the petite blonde vocalist for Mango Groove, was a kind of pop sex symbol who went solo when the band had more or less run its course but this solo career was never as successful as Mango Groove had been.

I believe there has been a fairly recent attempt to resurrect Mango Groove without much apparent success.

Mango Groove was the Freshly Ground of its day: a group of White and Black musicians mixing up a potent brew of indigenous music combined with pop sensibilities, hit singles and management that could package the image and the sound into a commercially viable package. Sadly for Mango Groove they hit their stride and peaked locally before the great cultural thaw that came with the democratisation of South Africa and, unlike Freshly Ground, did not have much of an opportunity to expand into international markets.

I never saw Mango Groove live. The closest I came was at the Three Arts somewhere in the early years of their career, when the band had already made a splash in Johannesburg and was an unknown quantity way down south. The Quibell brothers had refurbished the Three Arts in an attempt to make if more of a money spinner than it had been for a while. The main theatre had been refurbished and an enclosed bar venue was built in the old lobby. Somehow, and well before Mango Groove had any kind of radio hit, their management booked them into the Three Arts for a week of shows, Monday to Saturday.

I had no idea what this allegedly hot new band sounded like. When I'd read about them in Vula magazine I thought that the band name suggested a tropical, Caribbean sound, perhaps salsa perhaps calypso. Then I read about "Big Mickey" Vilakazi and the make-up of the band from young White musicians pairing up with veterans of the Soweto music scene and thought the concept was something like disco mbaqanga with a White female vocalist and this idea did not attract met at all.

It made no sense to me for Mango Groove to be playing at the Three Arts for 6 nights throughout the week. They were not that well-known and the Three Arts was hardly a hip and happening venue, out in Diep River. Capetonians do not like to travel that far. A week at the Baxter Theatre would have made more sense, but I guess the choice of venue was forced by the then lack of popularity of the band. The way to do it, should have been what all Jo'burg bands did at the time: come down to Cape Town for 2 weeks and play a bunch of weekend gigs at the club venues in town.

I was kind of interested in checking out Mango Groove just for the hell of it, particularly as I did make an effort to catch all the local rock gigs I could get to but I was not going to drive to Diep River during a week night.

As it happened, on the Saturday night I decided to make the trek to the south, The Flaming Firestones were also playing at the Three Arts. I thought they were the opening act and this contrast struck me as quite weird. The Firestones were a blues band; Mango Groove was African pop. Who the hell had thought this up?. The Firestones were a must see for me because Nico Burger was then their lead guitarist and so I thought, given that the entry fee to the venue covered both bands, that I could kill the proverbial two flies with one swipe.

When I walked into building Claire Johnston came storming past me in a very tight fitting,low cut strapless evening dress. The first impressions was that she was small, had small breasts, a funky haircut and was steaming mad about something. She could not really stride in that tight dress but she was motoring as best she could. Ii never knew what had annoyed her and I never saw her again.

On enquiry I was told that The Flaming Firestones were playing in the bar in the lobby and were not opening for Mango Groove at all. Okay, that made sense. The problem was that the two bands would be performing concurrently. As the Firestones were more of a priority for me I never did get to the main hall to check out Mango Groove.

It had seemed to me, even at the time of 21h00 I pitched up at the Three Arts (in those days one hardly ever went out earlier than 22h00 and mostly much later), that there was an altogether sparse audience for Mango Groove. The venue, which could accommodate about 3000 punters in the main hall, was not in any way buzzing with young trendies out to witness the ascent of an imminent local pop phenomenon. The Firestones had attracted the usual number of usual suspects who were by no means the the typical Mango Groove would be fan and in the main part of the building there was no sighting of anybody else. Perhaps more people came in after I entered the bar but for ever after I felt sorry for this band to have been subjected to this ignominy. Never in my wildest dreams at the time would I have foreseen that they would become as big as they did.

And they did become big. Not long after the stand at the Three Arts, and after their return to Johannesburg, Mango Groove started having chart hits with their African pop amalgam and then found themselves in the position of being able out to sell out the 8000 capacity Good Hope Centre.

For a shining couple of years Mango Groove was probably the biggest local pop sensation and Claire Johnston, who was the face and the voice of the band, became a celebrity. She was pretty and could sing. And fortunately for her the hits songs were great, memorable tunes.

Now, in 2011, Gallo Record Company has released a series of low budget compilations of the best tunes from various artists on their roster. Mango Groove is one of a group that included Lucky Dube, the Soul Brothers, Stimela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Miriam Makeba and Jabu Khanyile. There may be more.

The Mango Groove compilation is not the first greatest hits set. This album contains 10 sure fire hit tunes. If there are any other of their well known songs not included here, I would not know.

I must admit I bought this CD because it was cheap. I had never been inclined to buy any Mango Groove product, whether the original records or the later greatest hits album that is still out there as well. This collection is a bit of a delight. I know all of the songs, except for their version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and "Together As One" which sounds like an anthem for the 1995 Rugby World Cup (or it could be for another similar event) and I have to acknowledge that each one of them is a pure pop gem. John Leyden's tunes and Claire Johnston's voice, alternately breathily sexy and gleeful, and the swinging backing of a bunch of relaxed pros, make for great, exhilarating fun. The sum of the parts is far more powerful than the individual contributions, wonderful as those assorted elements may.

Mango Groove managed truly to make a gleaming alloy from the best of both worlds and to give us classic and classy pop.



Friday, August 12, 2011

Fat Possum cuts the crap




Fat Possum Records is a label you gotta love just for the name. My other favourite blues label name is Blind Pig Records. Fat Possum wins out over Blind Pig because the blues on Fat Possum is really downhome, primitive and unlike a lot of stuff I'd heard before. Blind Pig artists have a much more sophisticated sound and approach to their blues. Fat Possum bluesmen look, sound and are very rural. The blues they make is electric but the music sounds as if comes from parts of the backwoods where they don't have electricity.


I read about Far Possum. How, not unlike the birth of Alligator Records, a young White guy founded Fat Possum to record the music of some very obscure country bluesman. These were guys whom time had passed by. They were still making blues the way it had been played in the rural juke joints for many years while blues went uptown and got all sophisticated and commercial in the hands of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, B B King, Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan to outline just a brief history of time.


Since 1992 Fat Possum has given us Junior Kimbrough and R L Burnside (once backed by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) and T-Model Ford who sounded mean as hell and twice as unsophisticated. They rocked the blues pretty good and made as cathartic a racket as any punk rocker.


The first handful of Fat Possum albums I saw in Cape Town, a couple of R L Burnside records, were rather expensive for my taste, especially for blues records and I passed them by. Then I found the debut, and possibly only, album by Paul "Wine" Jones who is probably in the second league of Fat Possum artists and who truly has an excessively simplistic wah wah guitar style that makes me think of my own capabilities. How on earth and why Jones made the wah wah pedal his own is a mystery. Perhaps he found a second hand pedal in a local pawnshop and when he tested it he realised the noise it made could set him apart from his peers.


Even with the wah wah pedal Jones is no Jimi Hendrix, Steve Stills or Eric Clapton and the description unholy, over-amped roar fits his guitar playing. The backing is as simplistic and furious and his huge echoed bellow of a voice doesn't so much sing as chant the very straightforward lyrics. Jones is no poet and he mixes and matches traditional blues phrases with this own witticisms.


Paul "Wine" Jones makes riveting, though limited music. Over the length of an album the schtick pales. The ideal setting for a Paul "Wine" Jones tune is amidst a collection of other acts on Fat Possum, such as Not The Same Old Blues Crap, released in 1997.


T-Model Ford, Junior Kimbrough, R L Burnside, The Jelly Roll Kings and other more obscure names feature on this album. Not Paul "Wine" Jones, though.


Kimbrough does music that can be as lonesome as any of the solo John Lee Hooker sides or as relentless as Howlin Wolf's Memphis band with Willie Steele on guitar. Burnside sounds feral and extremely dangerous even when unarmed. The Neckbones and The Jelly Roll Kings are juke joint houserockers. Where The Neckbones, with "Crack Whore Blues", are as in your face as their song title suggests, the Jelly Roll Kings swing like a cool jazz combo with extra boogie backbeat.


Then there is Elmo Williams who does a dirty guitar boogie, backed by rudimentary drums (that kind of drumming is par for the course for Fat Possum artists) and almost atonal mouth harp. Williams could be a Hound Dog Taylor without slide guitar and his boogie is relentless, motorvating and just dares me to get up and dance in a silly, yet energetic fashion. Perhaps an album's worth of this fierce boogie would be too much, but damn it, one track ain't enough.


Robert Cage does a wordless chanting blues backed by alternately pounding and slicing acoustic guitar. This is the way to resolve the age old conundrum of avoiding blues clichés


Hasil Adkins closes the album on what sounds like an old timey hillbilly song to me. It even has a spoken bit where Adkins get all maudlin over the memories of his long gone love one, and if that is not the true sign of deep country, I do not know what is. The acoustic guitar and thudding drum are as simple as any of the blues tracks and the entire lyric is something like your memories are still loving me." Tear-jerking brilliant.


On the strength of this compilation I would seek out more of Kimbrough, Burnside and the Jelly Roll Kings and probably Elmo Williams too. At 44 minutes the CD is about the same length as records used to be and as a teaser it delivers a lot and promises a great deal more. That is what a good compilation is all about.


Whether the Fat Possum artists have ever become fat cats on the strength of their releases on this label is doubtful. Even severely primitive bluesmen will sell only so many records. If it ain't commercial it won't get on MTV and it won't be on the Disney Channel.


That's all right with me. These blues deserve attention, respect and, most of all, pure and untrammelled enjoyment.



Mick Fleetwood Blues Band

On 8 February 2008 the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band played the Sheldon Concert Hall in St Louis Missouri. Apparently the intention was to do homage to the Fleetwood Mac founded by Fleetwood, Peter Green and John McVie as 2007 was the 40th anniversary of the founding of one of the great brand names in blues and AOR.


Fleetwood is the drummer in this 4-piece blues combo. He has played behind two of the greatest guitarists ever, Peter Green the bluesman and Lindsey Buckingham the pop-rock guy, and on this night one Rick Vito is the guitarist. In the late Eighties Vito replaced Buckingham as guitarist in Fleetwood Mac.


The concert was recorded and the results have been released on the CD album Blue Again!, along with a second CD of 4 studio recordings with 2 Peter Green instrumentals and 2 Rick Vito instrumentals. The studio is in Hawaii and the four instrumentals have a decided island flavour.


The set list comprises of 6 Peter Green tunes, 5 Vito compositions and one classic Elmore James blues. This means that seven of the songs played by the band are from the Peter Green era of Fleetwood Mac, the band to which Fleetwood lent his surname and in which he made his fortune. Mick Fleetwood had probably been in the Buckingham Nicks incarnation of Fleetwood Mac for far longer than he ever played with Peter Green and I have no idea how often he returned to the blues during his years of AOR fame and fortune but here he is, in the heart of blues country, fronting 3 Americans who, proficient as they are, tend to be more show biz blues than roots blues.

In this day and ager of reunions of all kinds of old bedfellows, for nostalgia or money, it is almost strange that Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood, John McVie and Christine McVie have not played at least some reunion concerts. Peter Green is one of the greatest blues guitarists of all time, especially the modern time, and if Eric Clapton can still be seen as hovering near the very peak of that particular pyramid, Peter Green deserves a spot right next to him.


The difference between the two is that Clapton, though serially a junkie and an alkie, moved beyond his addictions, survived his afflictions and continued to have a smart, commercially viable career, whereas Peter Green apparently could not handle the LSD he took so prodigiously, was dealt a bad hand with the medication he was put on subsequently and when he did recover elected to follow a much more low key career path, concentrating on the blues and avoiding pop stardom. Both of them recorded the Robert Johnson songbook but only one had a commercial impact with his renditions. Peter Green is not that guy.


Anyhow, Mick is a great drummer and has long been part of one of the greatest rhythm sections ever. He does not sing, he does not write songs, he just hunkers down behind his drum kit and empowers the musicians in front of him. His style is simple, effective and swinging. Fleetwood knows that the drummer is the engine room and not the top deck and he never gets in the way. He may be the band leader but he does not showboat and just serves the musicians.


When Vito sings he sounds like a kind of Cajun guy from the swamps, though not with the accent, and not exactly like a downhome bluesman. He plays guitar well and digs deep into the tunes but cannot quite shake off the cover band image when he plays the Green tunes. Although the album sleeve notes claim that the band is not attempting to do a straight imitation of Fleetwood Mac's blues and do make an effort to bring their own stuff to these well-known tunes, there is still a sense of homage gone wrong. The most glaring shortcoming is that Rick Vito does not bring any of Peter Green's naked emotion to songs like "Looking For Somebody", "Love That Burns" and "Black Magic Woman" and turns them into slightly ordinary renditions of otherwise deep blues songs. The lightness of touch in the original arrangements is sorely missed. These versions do not exactly plod (Mick Fleetwood's drumming is much to supple and subtle for that), nor do they exactly take off and soar.


"When We Do The Lucky Devil" is a great Zydeco hoedown that fits the Vito style perfectly. The rhythm section bounces along merrily and the swamp guitar picking is sprightly and joyful. This is Vito's own song and this is probably why he inhabits it with confidence and owns it.


On "Shake Your Moneymaker" it is Jeremy Spencer's vocals that are sorely missed. Vito bellows the lyrics a bit and does not have that sly intonation that Spencer brought to an arguably naughty song. The band rocks out nicely and the beat is as infectious as ever. The enforced audience sing-a-long at the end is truly showbiz and unnecessary.


Fleetwood Mac prided itself on being as authentic a blues band as a bunch of White boys from England could be and they were pretty damns authentic to my ears. Although blues is still a career path for musicians and will probably always have its practitioners and adherents, it is as if the deep blues no longer really matters. The latest generation of blues musicians for the most part have had no direct contact with any of the original bluesmen. The likes of Peter Green, Mike Bloomfield, Johnny Winter and Eric Clapton not only met but also played with some of the giants of the blues and gain first-hand knowledge and experience from these guys, who started it all. Nowadays the aspiring blues musician must rely on recordings and DVDs to be able to have any kind of influence from the older generations. In this context Mick Fleetwood is probably a kind of elder bluesman. He can also lay claim to having met an older generation of bluesmen and should therefore be in a position to pass on some of what he learnt from them.


The Mick Fleetwood Blues Band is not an exercise in blues education. It is a vehicle for playing blues, in particular the blues of Peter Green, to an audience who may or may not be purist blues fans but who would recognise the name and attend almost purely because of the star attraction and perhaps like what they think of blues as well. After all, it's difficult to beat a backbeat and a fluent lead guitar for party fun. Blues isn't all sad or maudlin; a lot of it is dance music, party music, sex music, and that can't be bad.


I would imagine Fleetwood recalled Vito to his blues conglomerate because he knows the guitarist from his days in Fleetwood Mac and not because Vito is much of a bluesman in the first place but on the evidence of Vito's tunes in the live set he has something of the swamp thing in him and could well have a heritage that is mostly Cajun and not Delta blues but still in just about the same ball park of southern music.


Vito cannot replicate Peter Green's melancholy vocals or his floating, stinging guitar but he can do the Zydeco style quite well. His voice and blues rock guitar are better suited to that kind of party music as the upbeat raunch works better for a guitarist with not much subtlety.


Nobody does Peter Green like Peter Green. Gary Moore came close on Blues For Greeny and Lindsey Buckingham, who must be the polar opposite of a bluesman, did "Oh Well" proud. Vito learnt the songs and the licks and tries his best to do something new and exciting yet retain the original magic but he cannot quite get there.


This live set would probably have been a great night out for the audience. I am not quite so sure whether it is the kind of album that would stay on my CD player for any length of time. I would rather revisit the Fleetwood Mac recordings of the same tunes.


There has always the question of whether a bunch White guys, even well-meaning, committed White guys, could ever do justice to the blues of a bunch of old Black guys from the Mississippi Delta. In the case of the Mick Fleetwood Blues Band the question is whether a bunch of White guys (however professional) can do justice to the blues of another White guy. Sadly, they cannot quite hack it. Entertainment is all right; and slickness is not always a pejorative.


In this instance I would have preferred more toots and more guts. Peter Green deserves a touch of purism..

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

A tale of two chickies

On a good Friday in late July 2011 I bought 7 second hand South African rock CDs at the Claremont branch of Cash Crusaders.

Two of them were the debut albums of respectively Louise Day (Swallowed By The City) and Jessika (Shout) (actually Jessica-Kate Kinnear). I had not previously heard of either of them.

Louise Day's album interested me because I wondered whether she was the daughter of local rock chick (or rock matron) Jo Day and because Theo Crous produced the record.

Jessika interested me purely because of the cover photograph on the CD inlay card. She is a pretty brunette who is photographed giving the viewer a sidelong, sexy glance from underneath eye level bangs and she wears a top that leaves her right shoulder and top of the right breast bare enough to suggest that she has ample bosoms. I think the image is meant to convey a shy yet confident sexuality, or maybe it is just a blatant come on to enchant heterosexual old guys like me. Anyhow, the trick worked. I bought the CD simply and purely because I wanted to hear what this sex kitten sounded like. The fact that it was priced at R19,95 was another inducement.

Oh, and another persuading factor for buying Jessika's album is that it is on Musketeer Records, one of the better local labels. Along about 2002 I bought the debut and so far only album by The Fortune Cookies, top class guitar pop, that I did not like at first and which then grew on me to the extent that is one of my top ten local records of all time. Therefore, I was prepared to take a chance on Jessika in case she presented the same unexpected bounty as The Fortune Cookies. I must that my expectation was that the album would be wall to wall disco pop fluff.

Shout was released in 2008 when Jessika was 19. According to the press release on the Musketeer Records website Jessika came from the same music training school as Candice (Hillebrand), another local pop thrush who started out as a tasty television pin up morsel and then turned out to have a voice and some good tunes.

Jessika's album is a mixture of dance rock and pop rock, of which the title track (it is not the Isley Brothers song) and "Addicted" are infectious examples. "I Never Meant to Make You Cry" and "Stay", the final track, am two particular highlights; they show off the putative soul chops of Jessika's voice. She writes some of the lyrics herself, though not all of them, and has a couple of collaborators who contribute music. The inlay card, which has plenty more tasty photos of Jessika, does not tell us much about who recorded the backing tracks. I guess some of the names mentioned in the page of thank you's could be the musicians involved in the project. Melanie Louw, a top ten finalist in the first South African Idols competition also receives thanks as inspiration.

Jessika has a really good, strong soulful voice, though she is also a bit of a belter on some of the tracks, and I would like to hear her doing something more in that vein. She could be a local Joss Stone, Amy Winehouse or Duffy given the right material. When she gives it all she has, there is also a strong reminder of Christina Aguilera's voice.

As far as I know Jessika never became a household name and perhaps she now makes a living doing corporate events where she sings cover versions.

Swallowed By The City is of a more recent vintage than Shout. It was released in 2010 and is in the Sheer Sound stable, also a well-respected local label that has an eclectic roster that encompasses various genres.

Louise Day makes melodic, anthemic AOR rock. She has a regular band that sounds extremely professional and somewhat uninspired. Theo Crous gets a good solid rocking sound and puts a smooth sheen on the product. One can imagine that Louise Day has area rock ambitions and in a way this record is a female version of the stuff Watershed or Prime Circle puts out. The disappointing realisation is that there is not much of distinction on the album; no single tune that stands out; nothing to hit you in the gut and say, damn! Louise Day's voice is passable, though a tad expressionless, and the band rocks quite nicely when required but the rock and roll tropes are so generic that the whole album passes by in the background without much fuss.

The album opens with a portentous intro called "intro" that makes one anticipate something prog rock. Fortunately the classical gas segues into the glare of "Sunlight" and the band is away and cantering with Louise Day wafting about on top. The musicians are capable, the arrangements are well-crafted and the tunes tend towards the Big Statement though the hooks are kind of absent. Everything about the production is top notch and Theo Crous deserves kudos for his work on this album. The simple truth, though, is that this is no more and no less than proficient, high end journeyman rock of the sort that is perennially the support act and not the headliner, unless Louise Day tours by herself and has no competition.

Point to note: Jessika has a song called "Addicted" and Louise Day has a song called "Addict". In both cases the addiction is to a loved one and not to a drug. "Addict" is the last track on Louise Day's album and actually probably the best song on the album because it is mostly just a jazzy pop song with piano and a bit of rock decoration.

Having listened to these alums back to back I would be much more inclined to sync Shout to my iPod than Swallowed by the City, purely and simply because I like Jessika's voice more than Louise Day's and because Jessika's songs afford a superior listening experience over the length of an album. When "Stay" fades out to its final piano chord, you want to start from the beginning again. Hmm, maybe this is The Fortune Cookies all over again.

I prefer my rock relatively primitive and hard and Louise Day is too polished and anonymous for my liking. When her record is done, there is no impulse to listen to it again other than to revisit something that did not quite make an impression the first time around. One could perhaps make the effort to pay more attention a second time around just to get a sense of it, not because it was a compelling thrill you simply have to repeat. I guess the Louise Day Band live experience could be a good clubbing night out. In the cold, harsh reality of my lounge in the middle of the day, it is not so compelling or different. It makes no difference. Jessika made a difference because I had no expectations and was exceedingly pleasantly surprised. That is a good thing.




B B King


If I am not mistaken Riley "Blues Boy" King is currently the most famous old school bluesman alive today. There is also Buddy Guy but he is a generation younger.


B B was one of the originators and supreme practitioner of what was once categorised as urban blues by academic bluesophiles who wrote the story of the blues and had to pigeonhole various offshoots of a very broad river. Urban blues was smooth, sophisticated, and jazz and gospel influenced and a million miles away, supposedly, from the Mississippi Delta country blues of sharecroppers and levee camps. Urban blues was big city blues: uptown and sleek. For a while in the Fifties B B King toured with a big band with a full brass section that could riff behind him as if they were Count Basie's big band our of Kansas. In contrast the typical Delta bluesman was a solo performer on guitar. The electric downhome sound featured a small combo, with no horns, except that the blues harp often simulated a horn section, and was still more primitive than the big band sound.


For the first 15 years or so of B B King's career in blues he played almost exclusively to black audiences paradoxically because his ostensibly more sophisticated style was not recognised as an authentic folk expression by the White bluesophile academics that researched the blues and wrote the story of the blues. These White guys preferred the Delta blues of Robert Johnson and the new-folk blues stylings of Big Bill Broonzy and the electric downhome style of Muddy Waters, as these musicians were considered as authentic. Somehow, B B King was a showbiz bluesman who had none of the deep blues feeling some guy on the porch of a Delta juke joint was thought to have.


The joke was that King came from the Mississippi Delta and was as authentically steeped in blues as any of the musicians so admired by the blues scholars. Today, of course, King is as venerated as anybody else in the genre and possibly more than most. Maybe it is simply down to outlasting so many of his contemporaries.

I came to the blues via Dr Feelgood and Cream. A VeeJay album of John Lee Hooker's greatest hits was the first blues album I ever bought. My initial interest was in electric blues from the southside of Chicago, as this type of blues was more to my taste than the sophisticated style of B B King or T Bone Walker. At first I did not even care for acoustic Delta blues or blues piano.


I started reading about blues and came across the name of B B King, as part of the trilogy of Kings (BB, Albert and Freddie) and as a practitioner of a gospel inflected jazzy style with fluent guitar playing. This sounded good until I actually bought a B B King album.


Before that my first exposure to B B King's music was on an ABC Bluesway compilation where his "Blue Shadows" (taken from the 1971 album B B King In London) was a serious contender. King was backed by a small group with a solid rhythm section powering a relentless performance with pained vocals and elevating, piercing guitar playing. Many years later I also bought the CD of B B King In London.


Not long after being impressed by "Blue Shadows" I saw a B B King record (I think it was an album called The Best Of B B King, Volume II) on sale at Sygma Records in Stellenbosch and bought it, along with a John Lee Hooker album on the same label. I played the Hooker album to death. I later learnt that the British blues band The Groundhogs, or elements from the band, formed Hooker's backing band. Their version of "I Cover The Waterfront" was spectacularly spooky and affecting. On the other hand, I barely played the B B King album.


The problem with the King set was that it comprised recordings from the mid-Fifties where he was backed by a big band. The album cover gave no details of the musicians on the record and if I had seen that there was big band backing, I would never have bought the record. It was seriously disappointing after "Blue Shadows" and its powerful, piercing guitar licks. The first impression of these songs was that King mostly just sang and played very little guitar and if he did, it was mixed way down behind the riffing brass section. This was just about exactly the kind of music I did not like when I was in my late teens and early twenties and it was absolutely not the kind of blues I wanted to hear. Sophisticated, uptown and jazzy were anathema to me. It took many years and a lot of growing up before I realised that jump blues could be as exciting and interesting in its own right as downhome was.


Anyhow, though I investigated the blues and started collecting blues records in a serious way, I avoided B B King like the plague. My perception was that his music was all like that blasted cheap album and I did not care for gospel blues with no guitar at all.


I found the Albert King album As The Years Go By in a budget record shop in Cape Town and this record was a revelation. Albert King was a big, powerful man who played his Gibson Flying Vee guitar left-handed with an unmatched force and aggression. The conventional truth was that Albert King was no match for B B King when it came to imparting that deep blues vibe, either on the guitar or vocally. B B's patented vibrato and soulful gospel tones were technically superior to Albert who had only a few licks up his sleeve. If Albert had only a few good licks he made the most of them. His power sometimes outpunches B B's fluency and vibrato.


On As The Years Go By Albert King was backed by a small group of session musicians from the Stax soul machine and turned in a pretty effective set of blues underpinned by the solid groove of a Memphis soul band. This is what I liked. Brute guitar power, screaming string bends and a supple, driving rhythm section. Albert King became my favourite King in the blues field.


My aversion to B B King's music softened over time because I started getting into jump blues and R & B from the Forties and Fifties, which was very similar to B B King's style.


Then there was the second album he recorded with Bobby Bland, Together Again … Live, the second of two releases documenting live shows where the two giants of urban blues entertained audiences with their trademark gospelized blues. There was still not enough King guitar for my taste, as he played second fiddle to Bland, or so it seemed, but the tunes were big and it sounded as if the two stars were having fun. The main conceptual breakthrough for me was that I came to appreciate B B King's voice and impassioned singing style. The guy was worth listening to even if he put his guitar to one side and he gave Bland, s specialist singer, a run for his money.


My attitude towards B B King materially changed with The Blues Collection, a weekly part work publication during 1995 and 1996. Each issue told the story of a selected blues artist and came with a free CD of the music of the subject of that issue. The CDs could be free as the tunes selected for them were not necessarily the best work of the artists but it was nonetheless eye-opening for me in respect of a number of bluesmen whose music had hitherto been unknown to me. One of the first batch of issues concerned B B King. The music chosen for his CD was a mixture of old tunes: some deep blues and some blues ballads.


These songs kind of whetted my appetite for more B B King. In relatively quick succession I came across some more budget compilations of his music. One in particular, called something like King of the Blues (perhaps in homage to an apparently seminal Sixties album by the man, which had a very good cross-section of tunes that were mostly quite powerful readings of BB King standards and unfamiliar material too.


By and by I built up a nice little selection of B B King albums and eventually even found BB King in London, the album from which "Blue Shadows" had been extracted for that ABC Bluesway compilation. I still do not much care for those Fifties big band blues tracks but for the most part King's music is pretty well up there along with Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf and the rest of the downhome gang. I know that B B has his guitar schtick, his signature licks, like most other players and yet his solos thrill almost every time. Of course his many versions of his big hits get a tad overfamiliar and if I had to select my favourite blues albums of all time it would be difficult to pick any particular album. In his case I would definitely simply want to make a good mix tape.


A moment that stands out for me is the segment of B B King duelling on guitar with somebody like Steve Vai on the Access All Areas concert movie that played at the V & A Waterfront's IMAX theatre somewhere around 2002 or 2003. The concept of the movie was a bunch of acts filmed on stage, maybe at one concert. The standouts were George Clinton doing his parliafunkadelicment thang, Kid Rock and this amazing performance from B B King and Vai. King was seated during his time on stage (he was already a pretty old guy) while Vai moved around. At the end of whatever song they were doing, the two guitarists engaged in a quite nasty razor fight with guitars. I knew that Vai was a master of weird guitar tones and fleet fingered solos but it was B B's brutally nasty guitar tone and violent attack on the strings of Lucille that was the astonishing thing. King got sounds from his guitar strings I would never have he was capable of. For every nasty tone Vai produced King produced something even nastier. He was like the guy who brought a gun to the razor fight Vai had anticipated. For an old guy he could sure make a lot of amplified, electrified noise. I was reminded of that scene from the movie Crossroads where the character played by Ralph Macchio blows away the satanic character played by Steve Vai, who plays in much the same way as when he faced down B B King. Vai loses in the movie too, but not because Macchio is nastier. In Access All Areas Vai gave it his best shot but he sounded like a wanna be compared to the old blues guy with the nastiest tone this side of any crossroads at midnight.


Then there is the DVD of the concert King played in Kinshasa as part of the festivities around the "Rumble in the Jungle" heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. Before the fight there was a 3 day music festival featuring a bunch of the biggest black acts of the time and somehow B B King, the indomitable international ambassador of the blues by then, was on the bill as well. I bought this DVD, called Sweet 16 (after one of the songs King performed), in 2005 at a flea market stall just off the Chinatown section of Soho in London, along with a DVD of the live Parliament experience from the late Seventies.


On the night B B wears a natty grey suit and a white shirt with a crisp, pointy collar. His backing musicians include a large brass section, some extra percussion and a rhythm guitarist. The second guitarist, piano player and about half of the horn section are White, which seems a tad incongruous at a celebration of African Black culture and celebrity.


The opening song is a bit of a soul ballad, "To Know You Is To Love You", where B B does his patented 'can't play when I sing" thing and emotes mightily. The songs that follow ("I Believe To My Soul:, "Why I Sing The Blues", "Ain't Nobody Home", "Sweet Sixteen", "The Thrill Is Gone", "Guess Who" and "I Like To Live The Love") comprise the core of the kind of hits repertoire King has reprised, in various combinations over many live albums.


Throughout the rhythm section is tough yet supple and King's guitar playing is smooth, fluent and affective. He sings equally strongly. Of course he has performed these songs many times before and will perform them many times in the future but there does seem to be a freshness and enthusiasm that gives a great deal of power to the familiar. As the cliché has it: this is a musician at the top of his game. This is what he does for a living and he does it with consummate ease and professionalism and delivers the blues goods. As I have mentioned, I am not too keen on the big band blues thing and for this reason this would not be a top favourite DVD to watch, except for the historical values of seeing B B King play.


Towards the end of the set BB introduces his band. Everyone has been with him for a number of years. In particular the drummer has been part of the B B King band/orchestra for 17 years and the bandleader and arranger has been with him for 20 years. That these two guys could stay with King for so long either shows a tremendous sense of loyalty or very simply that being in blues can be a career in music regardless of how tough times might have been for blues musicians over the years.


Eleven years after this gig and in 1985 MCA released Six Silver Strings, B B King's 50th album. I did not buy it at the time. I found it a flea market stall in the Gardens Centre one Friday evening in late July 2011. I bought a stack of second hand CDs, including a couple of blues compilations and this B B King album, because it was there and cheap and not because I expected much from it.


BB was about 60 at the time of Six Silver Strings' release. Since 1974 he had recorded a couple of jazzy-funky albums backed by the Crusaders. His producers and record company had done their best to modernise his music and to bring it up to date. The perception was that blues could only advance beyond a small, fanatical core audience, and B B in particular could only continue to thrive in his career if he got with the program of embedding his brand of gospel blues in smooth soul and cocktail funk that would be radio friendly and would fit right in with so-called urban contemporary playlists.


Many rock giants of the Sixties and Seventies tried to embrace Eighties production values and recording techniques that makes so much music from that era sound so distinctive, in particular the big drum sound that often threatens to overwhelm any other instrument in the mix.


Six Silver Strings falls into the category, I guess, of what Robert Christgau called night club funk when rating a different King album from that era. The rhythm section is somewhat robotically regular and the production values give the music a deep sophisticated sheen, with the prominent drum sound, that kills any vestige of deep blues feeling despite King's best efforts. I won't say he phones in his contribution but it is mostly kind subdued and without the fire one associates with blues. This is blues as background music for an uptown party where evening dress is mandatory. Obviously B B's management and record company must have tried to sell him to an audience that would not normally appreciate Mississippi delta blues but who liked lightweight jazz funk and for whom the term quiet storm was invented as a radio format. BB King therefore aimed at urban contemporary.


Luther Dixon wrote (in the case of one song, co-wrote) 5 of the 8 songs on the album, Ira Newborn wrote 2 and there is one track written by Steve Cropper and Wilson Pickett. The concept is that blues is the feeling imparted by the songs and not so much the deep emotion behind them. Apart from "Big Boss Man" there are no blues standards on the album and apart from "Into The Night" there is no song from this album that has become a B B King standard. This is a R & B slbum slanted towards blues, mostly because B B King is the artist, but the songs could have been placed with almost any R & B singer from the era and they would have worked as well in a lounge soul, quite storm context.


B B King's guitar is the big theme, in that no fewer than 3 songs allude to Lucille the Guitar. The title track, "My Lucille" and "Why My Guitar Sings The Blues" all deal in one way or another with one of the primary reasons King is world famous: his infinitely special blues guitar playing. Without the guitar B B King would have been simply Bobby "Blues" Bland.


The second track on the album, "Big Boss Man", is one of Jimmy Reed's hits and is generally played with a relaxed swinging groove that is typical of the patented Reed boogie. The lyrics serve as a warning to the singer's employer to take him more seriously and not to mess him around, in case the employee takes a fancy to give the bossman a few slaps. Reed himself doesn't sound too aggressive when he delivers his message of warning because his lazy drawl is not exactly the best way to make anything sound life threatening. Yet King's take on the song is even less urgent and has less of the sense of imminent aggression that the lyrics promise. It is just a weak version of a blues classic that makes no sense. Was there nothing better to put in its place?


Next up is a stone soul classic: Wilson Pickett's big hit "In The Midnight Hour", which is also intended as being a badass song of sexual braggadocio of the type that is common in blues. Wicked Pickett gave the song an air of menace and a promise of sexual fulfilment that was an offer impossible to refuse. It is well known that King himself liked, and probably still likes, the ladies and had many of them over the years. He should know a thing or two about sexual attraction.


B B King imbues "In The Midnight Hour" more with a melancholy than with threat. The band plays tough (though still not as tough as the Stax house band would have done) and the guitar sings the solo but the power of the song is diluted to the degree where it is a pleasant diversion and no more. It could be a showstopper at a concert; here it sounds too much like filler.


"Into The Night" comes from the John Landis film of the same name, with Michelle Pheiffer and Jeff Goldblum and does sound like soundtrack blues for a nightclub audience somewhere in uptown Hollywood.


Ira Newborn, a piano player as far as I know, wrote "My Lucille" and with the double entendres this song could be about a woman or B B King's guitar Lucille. He does get passionate enough about the title character that one might think it is actually about his six stringed instrument and his undying love for her. It has been with him long enough, through thick and thin and has no doubt never let him down and has given him more confidence and support than any woman could ever have done.


"My Guitar Sings The Blues" is a 1985 rewrite of "Every Day I Have The Blues" or "How Blue Can You Get" in that it is a medium paced shuffle in which King narrates all the reasons he and his guitar have to sing the blues. Essentially the blues come from the different ways his woman treats him badly. Of course he actually confides in us that it is the guitar that has the blues but we know the man with the guitar is the one that suffers. Surprisingly, this is not the track with the best, rawest guitar sounds. Even "In The Midnight Hour" is a better showcase for Lucille the guitar than the track about the guitar and its blues.


The final track, "Double Trouble", is another Luther Dixon original and not the Otis Rush tune of the same name. it features some Eighties synths, funk drumming (not to mention an electronic percussion breakdown) and some of the tastiest, if brief guitar licks on the album. This sounds like a strong attempt at making a contemporary R & B artist out of B B King. Not a bad tune and a stellar performance from the man, but overall pretty weak and pointless.q


I would imagine that Six Silver Strings would have disappointed long time B B King fans and committed blues fans alike, as it does not deliver much that sticks in the mind. One should never demand that an artist simply keeps repeating himself or sticks to a well-known and well-established method or path, but an artist should also not venture onto paths that are dead ends, regardless of the initial promise, or be different simply for the sake of change. On Six Silver Strings B B King may be as professional as he ever was and may be giving the material his best shot but the impression is that his heart isn't truly in it. Maybe he realised that yet another attempt at commercialising his blues for a generation for whom the blues was a tad too archaic was not actually going to make a difference.


As 50th album celebration Six Silver Strings falls short. It is not B B King's best album by any means and even if it finds a place in a complete discography of King's work, I cannot imagine that anyone would recommend it as a must have. It sounds more like a contractual obligation.


Riding With The King, B B's album with Eric Clapton, is more of a real deal. The band is tight and the production favours a sound that is more rootsy, taking contemporary recording techniques and philosophies into account, and the songs are top notch, a mixture of old favourites, brand new songs and some judicious covers, like the title track by John Hiatt who would probably not have conceived this song, a tribute to Elvis Presley, as a blues tune. Appropriating as referring to B B is audacious and amusing. The two guitarists spar delightfully and sharply and both sing well and seem to have a lot of fun. Clapton is not in the same league as vocalist as King but he is up there as blues guitar player and for that reason alone this album is a great listen. But it also emphasises the trite truth that good tunes done well go a long way.


I wonder why there has never been a similar project with Peter Green and B B King. Reportedly B B once said that Peter Green was the only (White) blues guitarist who made him sweat. Green's style with Fleetwood Mac certainly sounded a lot more like B B King's than Clapton's sound with John Mayall or Cream.


I believe King played some concerts in the UK in mid-2011. The audience must now be of the type who goes to see him as much for being able to say they saw one of his last gigs as for the pleasure of prime B B King. However he strong he may still be, he is still north of 80 and if he was already sitting down at his gigs ten years ago, I would imagine he does so now. For that matter, that was what John Lee Hooker did in his last years but whereas Hooker's guitar and vocal styles seeme4d to lend themselves to a seated delivery, I cannot quite see how B B King's gospel take on the blues survives being delivered from a chair.


I guess a DVD is going to be the closest I will ever get to experiencing B B King live. Even if he ever comes to South Africa while he still can, I would not want to go to any of his concerts, for much the same reason I never went to Deep Purple, Uriah Heep or Z Z Top when they played Cape Town. I would never want to pay to hear Uriah Heep and I would have preferred the other two bands in their mid-Seventies heyday. In B B King's case, I would probably have enjoyed him in the late Sixties and very early Seventies, after he found that he could tour with a small backing group and before he was paired with the Crusaders.


My CD collection probably contains an elegant sufficiency of B B King albums and compilations. Maybe if I ever find Live at the Regal I will buy it, and probably anything from the period mentioned above, but I truly love the blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf in an unconditional, visceral way, B B King has been an acquired taste with a lot of provisos. I cannot see how that will ever change.


Now he is King of the Blues but the blues of the King is not exactly the greatest souvenir of the blues one can own.






Sunday, August 07, 2011

Wondering about Makhulu

Makhulu is a kind of South African blues supergroup as a studio project in 1999 for jobbing musicians with some time on their hands. Larry Amos, once guitarist and vocalist for Baxtop and leader of his own band, sings. Willem Fourie, once of the Flaming Firestones and Southern Blue and some other projects, plays all guitars. George van Dyk, once of Hotline and some other projects, in the UK and in South Africa, plays bass. Junior J Botha, whoever that may be, plays drums.

All these musicians are storied and have been around for a while. I've written about Baxtop before and will not rehash that here.

Hotline is a subject for further investigation. P J Powers, Alistair Coakley, Van Dyk (supported by various keyboard players and drummers) were the leaders of one of the biggest commercial rock prospects in South African in the Eighties. Hotline started off as a bog standard hard rock band, then discovered mbaqanga and crossed over to the townships, and charts, with a mixture of rock and jive that was very right for the times. At some point Van Dyk went to the UK, lasted for a couple of years and then returned home to record a mega pop hit with the same mbaqanga jive influences Hotline had used to such good effect.

If Junior J Botha is Piet, as I am guessing, then I have also written about him elsewhere.

Willem Fourie is an interesting study in ambition and perseverance that leads to achievement without genuine talent. Steve Louw and Valiant Swart are much more successful local examples of this phenomenon.

Like me, Fourie attend Paul Roos Gymnasium but was a year or two behind me. He reappeared on my radar when he started playing with the Flaming Firestones as part of an occasional horn section. Fourie played trumpet and Jannie van Tonder played trombone. One of my abiding memories is of the Flaming Firestones doing a red hot flaming end-of-set version of "Rock Me, Baby" powered by horns. I think Rob Nagel might have joined in on saxophone. No other blues band in Cape Town ever had this benefit.

As it turned out trumpet was not Fourie's only instrument of choice. He also learned to guitar. By the time Clayton Frick left the band, Willem Fourie was accomplished enough to join the Flaming Firestones as second guitarist behind Nico Burger and as singer. In the beginning it took two sets and probably alcohol to get Fourie to relax into his vocals and not sound so stilted. He could carry a tune but he had no passion with it. He was okay as rhythm guitarist. Unfortunately he also took some solos and th9s showed off his limited chops and the journeyman nature of his skill. It sounded as if he were just running up and down the scales with a certain degree of fluency yet once again without passion or fire of intensity. His dexterity was a mark of plenty hours of practice. The thing is: you cannot practice feeling and he had none of it.

When Nico Burger left the Flaming Firestones Willem Fourie was left as lead guitarist and this was not a good thing. He could replicate the chords and licks but he could not bring the necessary spark to the band. I guess he tried and maybe it was simply his inexperience that let him down but the Firestones had had two really excellent and interesting guitarists before Willem Fourie and the comparison was not flattering.

Not long after the Firestones fell apart Fourie popped up leading the Southern Blues Band, later abbreviated to Southern Blue, and all of a sudden he had a new authority on vocals and guitar. Not that he was in the league of, say Nico Burger, as axman, but there was a new deal that made it an interesting prospect to go check out his new band. He sang better and played fewer banal solo's and the songs were great.

Southern Blue lasted for a short time and then Willem Fourie dropped out of sight. I heard that he went north to Gauteng to seek more lucrative opportunities in his chosen career. Nothing more was heard until I saw the Wondering album by Makhulu (on Spook Records) in either Vibes Vinyl or at a Cash Crusaders outlet, took note of the musicians and bought the CD.

It is probably down to the combined experience and professionalism of the four musicians on the project that this album ain't half bad. I always wonder how and why albums like this are recorded. Did Makhulu ever gig? Why did Willem Fourie and Junior J Botha write these songs? Was there ever a hope that the album would be a good little earner?

Well, all I can say is that Wondering is a good testimonial for the song writing skills of the Fourie and Botha and the combined efforts of the musicians. The production is crisp and clear; the playing is tight and concise; the songs have tunes and hooks. The format is blues rock, though there is quite a bit of African musical influence in the mix. The mbaqanga thing is filigree, a tasty decorative pattern that lightens up the potential stodginess of the chosen genre. Having said that, though, the take on a well-worn staple of rock music is fresh and likeable. Willem Fourie shines on guitar. On this showing he has mastered his instrument to the point where it does not really matter whether he has the talent or not. He knows his stuff and the deftness of his touch is a delight. It is truly amazing that such perfection is applied to very minor release in the bigger scheme of things.

On top of that Larry Amos brings a world weary soul voice to songs of love and experience. The man can sing and he sings the hell out of songs that may be somewhat trite otherwise.

Wondering is not the best South African record I have ever heard but I would put it in the category of "must own" for anyone who is serious about local music. The unique selling proposition is that such quality exists in a project that must have been pretty low key.

It goes to show that one should not sniff at second hand albums in Cash Crusaders. Many may be total shit; every now and then a gem like this comes along that makes the endless browsing worthwhile.


Machineri rocks Greenside

In June 2010 I saw Machineri live at Zula in Long Street and immediately and intensely disliked what I heard. About a year later I listened to their recordings on their MySpace page. This time I was impressed. The tracks were not only well produced but the songs had dynamics and even a certain tunefulness to them that had been lacking at Zula. This was good stuff.


I believe a Machineri album will be released in the South African Spring of 2011 and I really look forward to it. I really want to love Machineri because on paper they make exactly the kind of music I am into.


On Sunday 7 August 2011, I saw a part of the Studio 1 show on satellite music channel MK, in particular a 3 song set by Machineri at a venue in Greenside, Johannesburg.


Despite the apparent bitter cold (the two presenters of the show were well bundled up and the woman even for a fur hat as if she were traversing the tundra on a dog sled) Sannie Fox wore a sleeveless, long black dress and seemed to have no, or almost no, make-up on which made her look older than her years, given her grievous thinness. She looks like a well-worn woman from the Appalachians, somewhere in the West Virginian hollows. This must be part of her credentials to sing the blues.


Andre Geldenhuys (lead guitar) and Daniel Huxham (drums) were dressed a lot more warmly, especially Huxham, who must really have felt the cold. One would expect a drummer to work harder than the rest and therefore to feel the cold less.


Both Geldenhuys and Huxham look like they are imitating Dave Gilmour circa Dark Side of the Moon. I guess that there is a deliberate Seventies thing going on, not only visually (at this gig in Greenside Sannie Fox resembled a non-fey, taller, angular Stevie Nicks) but musically as well, if one listens carefully to the riffs Geldenhuys plays.


The band claim John Lee Hooker, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, The Black Keys, Jimi Hendrix, Ali Farka Touré, Chopin, Paganini "and many more" as their influences. I can hear the Hendrix and Led Zep references and maybe the purported wildness of a Paganini violin solo, but for the rest, I am a tad perplexed. John Lee Hooker? Surely shome mishtake. Sannie Fox sure does not sound like him and the music does not have much actual deep blues in there; maybe it is Fox's simplistic guitar playing that echoes Hooker's open tuning style. However, influences do not mean imitations. Perhaps the secret lies in the unnamed "many more" influences. Thalia Zedek and Come must surely be part of the deal ....


MK recorded three Machineri performances at Greenside and broadcast two in their entirety and a part of the third tune. Apparently there was also an interview with the band but I skipped that.


The three songs were "Spider Suitcase", "Ladder Operator" and "Father Gun." Sadly the set peaked with the first song, "Spider Suitcase" (a brilliant title and I am very curious what the lyrics are about), which was by far the best of the three, mostly because the musical arrangement has shape and purpose and Fox carries what one can call a tune. "Ladder Operator" features the patented Fox wail that may have roots in blues but just sounds like too much Yoko Ono and too little Janis Joplin and Geldenhuys riffs away with great dexterity but no real impact. It is this kind of aimless emptiness that turned me off so much at Zula. For the third and last song Fox puts down her guitar and really gives it a lot of lung on "Father Gun", mercifully cut short by MK. Obviously the woman has a strong voice and is not shy about it. She is also not embarrassed to impersonate a banshee with issues in front of an audience. I guess the lyrics may well be deep and meaningful and the performance meant to be soul bearing and cathartic with the intent of leaving the punters gobsmacked at the raw emotional intensity of it all, but once again the single guitar of Geldenhuys, however intricate the guitar part may be, cannot carry the crushing weight of that excruciating Fox wail.


Lots of bands over the past decade of so have proved that a duo can rock as well as a full band and that a bass player is actually superfluous if you at least have a drummer. Further in the past John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed, for example, on occasion both recorded with only another guitarist backing them and those recordings worked because the second guitarist took on the roll of both second guitar and bass behind the leader's guitar, to give the song a dynamic and a dramatic tension. It also helped that both these guys sang well enough for their songs to gain an emotional depth beyond the often banal words of their blues. Sannie Fox is supposed to be that second guitarist behind Ander Geldenhuys but because they do not really play strict blues and prefer a modern take on a peculiarly bare bones late Sixties and early Seventies style of underground rock, she provides more of a drone than a rhythmically complex backing that would dynamically complement the lead riffs.


Now that I think about it, some of this sounds an awful lot like the last two Otis Waygood albums, without the flute and bottom heavy bass and with Sannie Fox, who cannot possibly be the Rob Zipper of Machineri. She would do well to seek out the recordings of female blues singers, such as Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie, Koko Taylor and the vocalists from Saffire the Uppity Blueswomen. If she wants white models there are Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt, Tracy Nelson and Eden Kane. These various examples over the last 80 years or so only scratch the surface. The point is that these women have voices that convey a blues feeling. Sannie Fox does not yet do it. She does not go to church, or if she does, it is not Southern Baptist.


Machineri do not write classic songs yet. According to their website they jam until something presents itself that they feel can be developed into a song. No one expects them to be Cole Porter or Willie Dixon but if you want to leave a legacy in music, you have to write songs that will become standards. They must be tunes that are memorable for the right reasons and that will make other musicians want to learn them too. At Zula Machineri backed The Pretty Blue Guns who have the ability to write seemingly simple yet catchy and impactful tunes. Recently I revisited Foghat's Stone Blue album from 1978 and was once again impressed with what one can do with the rather trite genre of blues rock when you apply a little imagination, a lot of tune and brio to your performance. The song is the thing. There must be a tune or a vocal or instrumental hook that will stick in the listener's mind. If the tunes have a life apart from the album on which they are featured and apart from the songwriter, they will be likely to live forever.


Another example comes to mind: The Dead Weather. There we have a very powerful female vocalist with a band of guys who rock out hard, influenced by heavy blues and modern sound experiments. In sequence the songs are loud and powerful yet the two albums do not hold together all that well, and apart from the energetic performances very little remains with the listener once the CD stops. It is the aural equivalent of the fourth Indiana Jones movie: the albums move at a heck of a pace, have a lot of thrills and spills and yet do not satisfy, Robert Christgau summed it up when he points out that none of the songs, strong as they may sound in the context of the albums, have much of a reason for existence outside of the context of the other songs in the sequence.


Machineri may not be in the business of making radio friendly unit shifters (as cynical as Kurt Cobsin had been about this necessity, he had the ability to do just that) but, as musicians, they should be in the business of writing decent songs that will stand the test of time; always bitter, never sweet is not such a great attribute for songs though.


I am still looking forward to the release of the album and I will buy it. I am hoping the recorded versions of Machineri songs will be closer to what I heard on MySpace than what they sound like on stage.


Machineri probably has more cogs than I know about and I trust that they have enough grease for the mechanism to perform smoothly for a long time to come.