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.