Thursday, November 29, 2012

Four Recent Releases

The other day, on a single visit to The African Music Store, I was able to buy the four debut CD's by four diverse local acts from, loosely speaking, Cape Town, All of them are independent releases too. To me this is a positive indication of the robust state of health of the local music scene and the ambition of the musicians within it.


At least two of the albums have been reviewed in the South African edition of Rolling Stone and no doubt all four of them would be reviewed there in due course. Attention is being paid. And deserved.


The four acts are: December Streets, The Great Apes, The Bone Collectors and Lucy Kruger.


The Rolling Stone reviewer did not care much for This Is by December Streets because the songs are too samey at mid tempo with pop "ooh oohs" that grated on the reviewer's ears. My take on the album is that it fits in with the current trend of twee, jangly British pop typified by Two Door Cinema Club and Bombay Bicycle Club, influenced by the Eighties, with echoes of Teardrop Explodes and Haircut One Hundred. Even stranger: I hear reminders of local band Karoo, one of my favourite Nineties bands of the first wave of the South African Music Explosion that followed the regime change in 1994, and now that I think about it: also more recently local band, Cassette, particularly their debut album before they got too dark and serious.


This Is comes in
a fancy cardboard fold out sleeve, which by now seems to be the obviously preferable hip alternative to the plastic jewel case of most major releases. We are also given a booklet, tucked into an inner pocket of the sleeve, with lyrics on one side and some photographs and inspirational slogans on the other side. The impression is that someone has spent a bit of money on making the product look good on the shelves and to give the buyer a little visual distraction. All good and well though I have never been a fan of printed lyrics. The listener should be able to make up his or her own mind about what the singe is telling us, if the lyrics are not that clear in the first place.


That the album is distributed by Sheer Sound must be some kind of stamp of approval and expectation that the music will reach more than a cult audience.


The feel the band aims for seems to be a breathless adrenaline rush for each song, with choppy guitar, trumpet filigrees and driving drums. The nagging sense of a missing wow factor is a bother. The production values are high and the record sounds good; the problem is that it seems the kind of collection of songs one would have to listen to in tandem to make sense of them. Very few tracks stand out sufficiently to become memorable. The album picks up speed and finishes strongly with tunes like "Thief", "Got That Feeling" and "Wazungu" with a nod to other local act, Hot Water.


The Rolling Stone reviewer is right, though. Every damn song contains its fair share of Tristan Coetzee going "woah oh oh" as if he just cannot contain himself. In one song this exclamation would signify excitement. In so many it simply becomes an irksome, calculated mannerism.


December Streets is a thoroughly contemporary guitar pop band. I cannot distinguish them conceptually or sonically from their peers that have attracted favour on the radio or on MP3 playlists and for this reason they should be equally popular. On the other hand, if nothing much distinguishes them from the competition, what's the point? This Is does become quite likeable in a frothy pop kind of way. A good, solid debut album with merit. Now they need to find some genius move to get ahead of the pack.


Lucy Kruger's album, All Those Strings, is presented in the traditional plastic jewel case and on the face of it looks like your standard big label release, though it seems to be as independent as the rest. I always wonder where the money comes from to record and release an album like this, especially when one sees the names of the session musicians who are the cream of local talent, with Albert Frost, Schalk Joubert, Melissa van der Spuy, Kevin Gibson, and local star chanteuse Inge Beckmann on backing vocals on one track. Obviously the presence of these names puts the seal of approval on Kruger's appearance on the local scene.


Apparently Kruger studied drama at Rhodes University and has now settled, or returned to, Cape Town, to pursue whatever her muse might be and has become an instant next big thing on the local scene. Or maybe it is just a Twitter thing. The enigmatic, arty photographs on the inner sleeve reinforce the suspicion that the album is something of an art project. This record did not come about from a bunch of mates sitting around jamming until they come up with a tune or two and then recording the results in someone's bedroom. Perhaps Kruger was writing poetry and noodling away on an acoustic guitar in her dig in Graham's Town, between lectures, until she got some songs out of the experience and then played in the local equivalent of a coffee house.


Anyhow, the music on All Those Strings is also the most traditional adult pop / rock sounding of the four albums. The arrangements are tasteful, sweeping, dynamic and well produced; all of the adjectives one would apply to a project of the highest professional quality.


Vocally Kruger reminds me of Josie Field with the same kind of lisping affectation in the pronunciation of certain words, especially the sibilants. The refrain of "it's cdatchy phrases that sell" in opening track "Littel Puppet" is also so very Field. Kruger is not as expressive or as passionate as Field, though, and that lack of brio is the major drawback of this performance. Kruger sounds a tad too reserved and careful not to fuck up than totally committed. There is not actually an ice maiden thing going on, because the voice is too warm for that, but it is not a totally relaxed, exuberant performance either.


If Lucy Kruger is a drama student, this may be just a role she is trying out for now. The songs are not bad, with the kind of deep pondering one would cynically expect from this kind of young woman, and there are some decent tunes but for a pop record, even a high concept one, there is remarkably little about it that stands out on first listen or even on repeat. It is likeable yet not adorable. I would not say it is a vanity record but it sure sometimes plays like it. There are no really big tunes or quirks to the songs that are really driven by their arrangements. "Muse" is a highlight, and so is the catchy guitar hook in "Heaven" and the soaring melody and heartache of the refrain "crying out for more" on "Four White Walls."


The Bone Collectors is a collective operating on the new blues scene in Cape Town, where the emphasis seems to be on rootsy, old-timey, pre-electric sounds rather than the lead guitar histrionics that have been the tendency. The obvious antecedents are the jug bands and string bands of the 1930's, whether in the Mississippi Delta or in the Appalachian mountains. There seems to be an equal fascination with back country blues and hillbilly country. Murray Hunter of Sixgun Gospel plays harp on a couple of tracks, presumably because the main honcho of Bone Collectors, one Roland Hunter, is his brother.


Black Love suffers from the serious and unfortunate disconnect between the sprightly, energetic music on the one hand and Hunter's less than engaging histrionic vocal style on the other hand. He sounds weirdly like Hugh Laurie on some tracks but mostly reminds me of the guy who used to front the Honeymoon Suites. And the latter is not a good thing.


The tunes tend to have little variation from song to song and kind of sound like so many reworkings of the same basic thing. Hunter has a degree of skill with words but he has neither a blues voice nor a country voice. Worse: he does not have an interesting voice nor does he use it in interesting ways. The effect is that Hunter sounds a trifle studied and forced – a white guy from South African doing his utmost to emulate music he probably loves yet cannot get to grips with. This album is a disappointment to me. I like the type of music The Bone Collectors play and had high expectations of it. In a live situation the flaws would most likely not matter too much. In the pristine setting of high quality digital audio the flaws are exposed, exaggerated and bothersome. In fact the flaws are so irritating I cannot see myself giving this album much time on my CD player.


The Great Apes are hard rockers with influences that range from mid-Nineties grunge to Iggy & The Stooges, and basically loud and fast garage rock.


One should also make special mention of the packaging of their debut album. The CD is almost lost in a very elaborate fold out cardboard and paper sleeve with black and white geometric or Kabbalistic symbols. I can believe that each sleeve might have been hand made. There is even a paper covering sleeve that fits tightly over the main sleeve and there is a real danger that this paper sleeve will tear sooner or later if one keeps taking the CD out to play it. The band has seen fit to have no words anymore on the packaging. Either you know this is the Great Apes album or you have to prize open the barricade to check out the CD itself to find out which band this might be.


The band performs 8 songs in about 35 minutes, which makes this an excellent old school garage record. Loud, relentless high energy guitars, shouty vocals, lead breaks. What is not to love? Who knows what they are going on about and who cares. The sugar rush of this album is an undiluted pleasure. .


Of the four albums the Bone Collectors' release is the weakest and the greatest disappointment and the Great Apes' record the most viscerally exciting and the most joyous experience. December Streets and Lucy Kruger have both given us their respective takes on what constitutes contemporary pop music and although their efforts demonstrate care in the making and attention to detail, they appeal more to the head than the heart. The Great Apes make what I think of as silly smile music. It is almost a guilty pleasure to delight so much in unpretentious faster louder rock that makes you want to put the CD player on endless loop. Lucy Kruger, for one, just seems to damned serious about her music. She is not the first, and will not be the last, young woman with issues she wants to discuss aloud as songs.


All of these acts have a place in South African music and the diversity is a good thing. I hardly ever buy albums by "international" rock acts anymore because pretty much all currently popular genres and variations can be found locally. To my jaded, older musical ears, there is nothing so wonderful about the Bombay Bicycle Clubs of this world that compels me to buy that type of music when I can get basically the same style form a local act that is more deserving, or at least equally deserving, of support.


South African rock has come of age over the last 18 years and these four albums are proof positive of this proposition that our rock acts can match whatever the rest of the world has to offer.







Friday, November 23, 2012

Bob Dylan’s Tempest

I've bought each new Dylan album, except for Christmas in The Heart (which may not have been released in South Africa) since 2006, which is more than I did in respect of his precious output, especially the Eighties stuff. With Modern Times (2006) and Together through Life (2009) my first impression was of an immediate thrill, soon followed by a feeling of being let down. On repeated listening the songs just did not seem compelling. The Dylan voice was ragged and hoarse to an almost uncomfortable degree; it was a distraction. The lyrics were trite and perhaps deliberately clichéd to the nth degree. The music saved the day. The band was sharp, worked the groove and obviously knew the blues and American roots music backwards and was not afraid to have fun with it.


Dylan is now past 70, and like his peers, The Stones, is still rolling and still rocking. The Stones will release their new product this November. They too, have made music over past couple of decades that can rock quite well but seems lyrically trite and almost rock by numbers. They have really gotten good at what they do yet lost their edge, resulting in music that no longer has any real spark or vitality.


The first point of interest about Tempest is that Dylan's voice starts out almost rehabilitated, with only an echo of the discomfiting rasp of earlier albums yet over the length of the album, as if it had been sequentially recorded in real time, the voice deteriorates and by the end of the record the sandpaper vocals are in full effect.


The opening track, "Duquesne Wind", is also in its way the most interesting performance here, featuring an old timey string band sound, jaunty and joyous, that reminded me of the spirit of John Wesley Harding, if not the actual sound, and I was wondering whether this would be Dylan's take on old-fashioned hillbilly country music, much as Neil Young's Prairie Wind was. The string band soon makes way for the electric band and we are more or less back with the blues tropes Dylan has relied on so much over the last six years. In fact, "Early Roman Kings" has a stop time riff similar to "Hoochie Coochie Man" or "Mannish Boy".


Most of the songs are quite long, and seem over-long, with lots of verses and relying on a relentless groove to push them along. The title track is by far the longest, being over 13 minutes, in the tradition of "Desolation Row" and "Brownsville Girl", because Dylan has a tale to tell and wants to take his time about it.


My first impression was that I liked this album, and probably more than Together through Life. Modern Times was great and Tempest could be a companion piece. Who knows whether Dylan sees these records as part of the same body of work, or as unique each time out? In the Sixties and early Seventies he was restless and, like a lot of artists of the time, did not want to be categorised, boxed in or stultified and progression was the name of the game to the extent that each album was to be different from the one before and each album had to break new ground and almost alienate the fans of the preceding one.


On closer listen the main positive about the album is that the music is engaging and highly joyous. The main negative is that the songs tend to sound the same and do not have discernibly variations in tune.


Today Dylan is apparently more careful to retain continuity from record to record and there is no progression in any real sense from Modern Times to Tempest. I've not heard Time Out Of Mind or Love & Theft or much of the preceding output from the Nineties and so I cannot tell whether Dylan has been treading water over the last 20 years but I would believe that he may well have been. It kind of comes with the aging process.


Like Neil Young, Dylan writes a lot of songs but releases more selectively, where Young still puts out a record a year. To my mind Dylan's most innovative work since about 1990, has to be the two solo acoustic blues albums he released early in the Nineties. The voice was still good though heading towards the one we know today and his selection of covers was excellent and the performances energised and full of the vigour his studio releases during the Eighties, for all their studio polish and sheen, lacked.


I do own a lot of Dylan's music but I am not a completist and have pretty much avoided everything between Blood on The Tracks and Modern Times, except for the Unplugged album and Good As You've Been To Me, one of the acoustic albums. Of course I would like to hear most of the unknown records but I doubt that I would want to spend money on them simply for that pleasure.


Lots of rock critics have written a lot about Dylan, such as Greil Marcus and his tomes on "Like A Rolling Stone" and The Basement Tapes, and Michael Gray, Paul Williams and Clinton Heylin, but my challenge to Marcus would be to do for the gospel period Dylan what he did for The Basement Tapes, whether or not he can get the born again religious fervour. Surely that period and that body of work are worth examining too? Anyhow, I am of the opinion that not much beyond Desire is worth examining in depth.


Dylan has become an elder statesman; the guy who made us believe that rock lyrics could be more literate than the triteness of pop lyrics. Now he has nothing left to prove and nothing much that is new to dazzle us with. He does what he does with an easy facility; perhaps too easy. Some of his songs sound like he made them up while he was singing them. He can still slip in any number of mystical, mythical or reality based allusions, references and quotes. Yet the overall effect, as is the case nowadays with Neil Young, is of a lyricist who delights in the banal, possibly ironically and mordantly so, and therefore ostensibly is now no different to the traditional pop lyric that he supposedly put to shame. The art has given way to the craft.


I suppose, if one is once a genius, that you are always a genius. To my mind, though, there is not much of the genius present in the recent new product from Bob Dylan. I cannot even believe that he has a driving, burning desire to make records although, as Keith Richards said, a songwriter is always writing songs and therefore always seeks an outlet for them. An unsung song is not worth much and it is probably for this reason that you would want to record it for posterity, and for the money. The Bootleg Series could be quite rich and after Dylan's death it will most likely be expanded into infinity but the best part of the previously unreleased material is probably out already. I am really only interested in the golden mid-Sixties period. Who cares for outtakes from Empire Burlesque or Infidels?


To a degree the three most recent albums represent easy listening Dylan. They seem a tad too glib and too polished to have any significant impact and there is nothing much in the lyrics that stick in the mind in the way the earlier words did. People may still quote the old Dylan. I do not think they will ever quote from anything he has done over the last 30 odd years. Would these records warrant major interest if they were by any other artist than Dylan? I guess not. On the evidence of Tempest he is a good roots guy with a sentimental streak and a love of words, nothing more.


The title track, "Tempest," is a very long account of the sinking of Titanic and the theme and the length echoes "Desolation Row" but where the latter song, by the young Dylan, is a wild poetic and dramatic ride of surrealistic imagery with an oddball cast of characters, the newer song by a much older Dylan is simply a straightforward narrative ballad with virtually no poetry or interesting images that one has not heard before. In fact it sounds as prosaic as to be a piece of hackwork that could have been written shortly after the ship sank. Obviously Dylan must have believed that this performance is deeply meaningful and heavily significant and that is why it is not only on the album but also the tile track. For my part it is not even on par with earlier narratives such as the various movie scenarios on Desire, or for that matter "Desolation Row" itself. Perhaps the answer is that "Desolation Row" demanded the weirdness and drama because Dylan was creating an imaginary landscape whereas the story of Titanic is very real and well-known and it would not do to over-dramatise an already dreadful disaster. The prosaic and almost banal details add up to the horror of the real life event.


Would this album have attracted as much attention as it has, if it had been released by anyone else? I dare say not. It is afforded attention and closer scrutiny because it is Dylan and because he is supposedly a genius. He still writes clever and sometimes interesting lyrics but the poetry is long gone. The prosaic narratives are not much a substitute for the fanciful lyrics of the early years.


One should not get stuck in an artist's past to the exclusion of present work but if the present work is not all that stimulating or awe inspiring, why should one not revert to the past glories that meant something? It always helps to get into an artist when either you are young or the artist is fresh. Rock is meant to be a young person's game and the old practitioners are doing it simply because they know nothing else and because it is their career en source of income. Tempest is once again a good example of a record that is made by professionals at the top of their craft but without particularly excitement. It may not be blues or country or rock by numbers, exactly, but that is the overall impression one gets. Craftsmen doing what they do very well yet with the professional's attitude. It's a job and I am going to do it well and nothing more. These people may as well be the musicians backing Miley Cyrus or Salina Gomez.


I did not come to Dylan or engage with his music because I needed a spokesperson for my generation, given that I was of the punk generation. I was impressed by the expressive lyrics that somehow were both seated in reality yet also in a world of his own imagining. Maybe it was the "rock poetry" that got me amidst a bunch of songs that seemed to have anodyne lyrics, if not completely idiotic pop. With Dylan you wanted to pay attention to the words. With just about everyone else the words were simply the necessary element to keep the song from being an instrumental. Now the music on his albums is still quite wonderful and obviously more in tune with a current vision of Americana yet his words are not so great an in his case I am now also simply listening to the entire thing and not only picking out what he is saying as important in and of itself.


Having said that, I am still comfortable with having bought the last three Dylan studio albums and have enjoyed for what they are: competent, well-crafted and mildly exhilarating American roots rock. I believe that these albums are minor works for those reasons. There is no apparent genius present here. The guy is a professional and is doing well at what he has been doing well for so many decades. No more and no less. Leonard Cohen is touring again at age 78 and has released one new album, since a financial disaster that robbed him of his life's savings. Dylan has never stopped touring and has never stopped releasing albums.


Some of the most interesting work comes from the series of archival recordings that have been released over the last 20 years. Stuff that were originally never meant for official release at the time and in a different world would never have seen the light of day as they show the artist in less than previously approved form, with demos and songs that at one time were not deemed fit for commercial release/. Nowadays there is a vast appetite, or so it seems, for the juvenilia or the failed experiments and surplus production of major artists. Neil Young has a similarly ambitious programme of archival recordings. Some of this must be hubris. Why would we want to hear old shit that was not good enough to release at the time? On the other hand, why not?




Sunday, October 07, 2012

Too-Rye-Ay revisited

There are three songs I particularly associate with National Service. They are Soft Cell's version of "Tainted Love", Culture Club's "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?" and Kevin Rowland & Dexys Midnight Runners' monster hit "Come On, Eileen."

"Tainted Love" reminds me of basic training and "Come On, Eileen" reminds me of the month of October 1982 when I attended a legal officers' training course after receiving my commission as junior officers. "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?" reminds me of the early days in Windhoek in 1983 where n I was stationed as military legal officer for about 13 months.

Of these three groups Soft Cell and Culture Club were new to me while I already a history with Dexy's Midnight Runners. Back in 1981, my last year at the Law Faculty of the University of Stellenbosch, the Dexy's debut album Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, was one of two albums that I listened to constantly throughout the year. In Dexy's case, it was just about daily. The other album was Elvis Costello's Get Happy and it is perhaps no coincidence that both these albums hearkened back to music from the Sixties: Stax soul and Motown pop. Although Costellos's album was great it was the kind of record I appreciated on more of an intellectual level whereas Searching For The Young Soul Rebels got me in my gut.

The Dexy's story and the narrative of the road to "Too-Rye Ay" are well known. Kevin Rowland was a control freak with interesting notions about how music should be made, how a band should conduct itself and how press and public relations should work. He hired and fired at will and searched restlessly for a new way to express his intense musical vision. Dexy's Mark I had some hit singles and then ran into a brick wall with "Plan B" and regrouped and reorganised to leave behind the donkey jackets, woolly caps and hold all's of their first look to emerge, after some turbulence, as weird ragamuffin gypsies with a Celtic sound that was intriguingly different to the soul sound with which the band had broken through.

"Come On, Eileen" was all over the radio in South Africa and even Namibia, and is perhaps still the most played Dexy's tune. At the time I got quite sick of hearing this song although I was chuffed that Dexy's, a band I loved, was achieving major international success.

For one reason and another I never bought the record of "Too-Rye-Ay". The version of the album I owned for many years, was a cassette tape album I bought at the record section of Metje & Ziegler department store in Windhoek, principally because it was on sale. Somehow I could not bring myself to buy an album, even by a band I loved, that seemed to be dominated by gypsy fiddle playing and not the brassy soul of the debut. I also suspected that my knowledge of the massive commercial success of this album would spoil it for me, at least conceptually.

Once I did buy the album some of my original reservations seemed to have been justified. The record just was not very much too my taste. I preferred the soul stomping gloriousness of the debut album and the Celtic swing and gypsy fiddling, although tuneful and exciting in its own fashion, seemed to have far less gravitas and meaning than the original Dexy's sound. I did not listen to the cassette all that much.

A couple of years later, and long after its release, I bought the audio cassette version of the commercially disastrous Don't Stand Me Down album. Chris Prior had played a couple of tracks from the record and I had read that it had not been well received by rock critics or the mass pop audience who had bought "Too-Rye-Ay" by the truckload because of the massive success of "Come On, Eileen." When I heard Don't Stand Me Down as a unit of songs I could not understand why this album had not been hailed as an undiluted work of genius for it was, in my opinion, much better and much more engaging collection to tunes than Too-Rye-Ay.

Over the last couple of years I'd bought a remastered single disc CD version of Searching For The Young Soul Rebels and the Projected Passion Revue album of live tracks and singles A and B sides. Mostly recently, on a UK holiday in early 2012, I bought the 30th anniversary version of Searching For The Young Soul Rebels as a 2-CD pack with not only the original album but also a whole bunch of singles, demos and radio sessions. These three collections more or less captured most of the recordings of Dexys marks I and II.

To date I still have not found the CD of Don't Stand Me Down.

On the second last day of September 2012, though, I finally bought the CD of "Too-Rye-Ay" from a charity sales organisation that regularly sets up its second hand book, DVD and CD stall in the Gardens Centre, my local centre.

The front cover photograph of the gypsified Kevin Rowland, looking either despondent or intense whilst playing with a stick between his feet, is still a tad twee for my taste, as was the whole stylised gypsy get up. At around the same time the British band JoBoxers were poncing about in a similar retro street look, although their's was apparently inspired by New York street gang style of the Thirties. The guys in Dexy's just looked stupid in dungarees worn with no shirts and sockless shoes. They were dressing up as much as the New Romantics and in their poverty chic way equally as pretentiously.

The other notable thing was that "Come On, Eileen" is the very last track on the album and not, as would be typical of the hit single, the first track or at least among the first tracks; as if the song had been added as afterthought (perhaps once a single release had turned into a hit) or maybe it is the encore to the main body of songs. A feel good farewell.

I'd heard the original version of "Plan B", released as a single, in late 1981 in a BBC feature broadcast on Radio 5 and had actually recorded the brief version played on the show. The album version is very much different to the single version and not necessarily better, which view was reinforced when I heard the first version again, as part of the bonus material on the Projected Passion Revue album. It just seemed to me that retooling the track along the lines of the Celtic influenced music around it diminished it and definitely did not improve it.

By the time I bought Too-Rye-Ay I was heartily sick of "Come On, Eileen" and opening cut, "The Celtic Soul Brothers", impressed me much more than the hit single did. It was a great album opener, a clarion call for what was to come.

The other immediately accessible track, and this might have been the reason why it was the other hit from the album, is "Jackie Wilson Said", a song by Van Morrison. And for the time being that was it for me. I desperately wanted to like everything that Dexys released yet I just could not get a grip on this album.

That is where thing stood for me until I bought "Too-Rye-Ay" on CD and revisited it

Where I had played Searching For The Young Soul Rebels daily for a year, and plenty more times in the following years, I probably played the cassette version of "Too-Rye-Ay" fewer than ten times.

"The Celtic Soul Brothers" is still impressively exhilarating with exuberant vocals and The Emerald Express's melodic riffing. On reading the lyrics on the insert I also realised that I have hearing the words incorrectly and the enlightenment is, as always, somewhat disillusioning. What I had always heard was more interesting than the correct words.

"Let's Make This Precious" and "Until I Believe In My Soul" were performed on the Projected Passion tour and on the CD of the radio broadcast of a show on that tour, these tunes make sense in the context of the brass driven Dexy's, well before the switch to fiddles and accordion and gypsy swing that change the feel of the tunes and, I suppose, lightens them yet also dims the effect.

Not only did Rowland add violin and accordion and whistle, there is also a vocal chorus to sweeten the sound. The insistent waltz beat of "All In All" is hypnotic and foreshadows the sound of Don't Stand Me Down.

"Jackie Wilson Said" is still a joy to behold. Great tune, great performance and a modern day soul type classic written by one of the masters of the form.

"Old" did not appeal to me when I first heard is, but now I can see how it could have fitted into the debut album, minus the fiddles and banjo, of course, and for this reason I can appreciate it properly second time around. I could read the lyrics but prefer not to do so because Rowland's often unintelligible vocals mean more as a sound and another instrumental voicing than the content of what he might be trying to say. I do not think he is the greatest rock poet ever. It is the performance that counts.

Perhaps it was the commercial failure of "Plan B" that made Rowland rethink the way the song should be performed and led to the new piano and voice introduction, swelling into electronic organ, before the revamped original, but still recognisable, is introduced with added extras such as harmonica and a woman's spoken interjection, and the fiddles. Kevin Rowland does put extra effort into this rendition and one can understand how he would have strained towards extreme passion in his delivery of this song. "Plan B" segues straight into "I'll Show You," which also sounds like a tune that would have easily fitted into the scheme of things on the debut, with glorious trombone solo from Big Jimmy Paterson, Rowland's song writing partner and solo remnant from the earlier incarnations for Dexys. This song is the defiant antithesis to the morose, defeatist moan of "Plan B" and one of the highlights on the record.

The backing vocalists make a strong contribution to "Liars A to E" in counterpoint to Rowland's voice, commenting on and corroborating what he is telling us. The fiddlers actually add some great flavour to the tune with a lengthy workout in the middle that is more than gypsy jollity and actually emphasises the warmth of the performance even if, once again, it does not sound like the happiest of tales.

"Until I Believe In My Soul" has falsetto vocals, female chorus, deliberate rhythm and one of the most electrifying performances on the album. I can see where this tune would have been a showstopper wherever the band played. This time the instrumental interlude is brought to the listener by a jazzy brass band that is almost jokey yet serves to simply give us a breather before Rowland steps back into the spotlight with even more intensity. At the end there is lonesome whistling, lonesome fiddle and Kevin Rowland telling us how he intends punishing his body to purify his soul. Weird, yet compelling.

In this context it is an anti-climax to end the album with the jolly knees up that is "Come On Eileen." Although this song's ostensibly upbeat mood fits in with the opening cut it destroys the mood set by "Until I Believe In My Soul", which has kind of wrung the listener dry. Now you are expected to get up and do a reel, or whatever dance it is one would do to the wild gypsy fiddling. On the other hand, perhaps it is best to leave the projected passion with a sweetener rather than with the gutted remains of your shattered psyche.

Having listened to these tunes again, after such a long interval of not hearing them at all, I am reconsidering my view of "Too-Rye-Ay" as probably being far better than I at first thought it was, as subtle, as intriguing and almost as compelling as Searching For The Young Soul Rebels. The thing is: several days after my last listen to the album, several of the hooks, from tunes like "Celtic Soul Brothers" and "Jackie Wilson Said" and even "Let's Make This Precious", stick in my mind and I find myself humming them at odd moments. If this is not a sign of a great set of tunes I do not know what is. The sprightly, unison horn and fiddle riffs eventually lodge themselves in the subconscious and refuse to go. In a way this is as much of a grower as album as Don't Stand Me Down, with tunes that are far less accessible and more oblique than the crowd pleasers on Too-Rye Ay.

So, say what you will about Kevin Rowland and his wayward musical path; it is indisputable that he pulled off a powerful, indelible hat trick on his first three albums with Dexy's Midnight Runners, changing his sound and attitude each time and each time coming up with a tour de force of immense proportions. This is the music that helps define the Eighties for me. Rowland may not have sold nearly as many records as Michael Jackson, Madonna, Prince or Bruce Springsteen, but his three album run from Searching for the Young Soul Rebels to Don't Stand Me Down puts him up there in terms of consistent quality, uniqueness of vision and strength of purpose.

I would be highly tempted to select all three of these Dexys albums for my top ten lists of favourite albums of all time. Kevin Rowland was that good.









Friday, September 28, 2012

Peter Green and Splinter Group in Soho

You gotta love a store like the SuperSpar in Robertson that not only looks modern, clean and appealing but also sells a multitude of good products in a small town, including freshly made sushi prepared by an Oriental sushi chef, and in addition has a selection of CDs you would not ordinarily find elsewhere.

On the one hand there is a varied selection of Afrikaans acts, most of them unfamiliar to me, and on the other hand there is a choice of cheap CDs too, such as a compilation of Fleetwood Mac tracks from the purist blues incarnation of the band when Peter Green was the undisputed leader with some of the most heart wrenching original, non-Deep South blues on offer. This collection has "Albatross" and "Black Magic Woman" and a slew of fine blues numbers, and all for just R39,99. It can't be beat.

Of course, I already own, and have owned, in different formats, all of the songs on this budget CD. It was the price that tempted me into buying this memento of a wonderful weekend in Robertson.

Anyhow, I've loved the blues of Fleetwood Mac from my first listen to Fleetwood Mac: The Vintage Years, a double album of tracks recorded for the Blue Horizon label. Peter Green had a doleful, tremendously sad kind of voice, with that Jewish weltschmerz thing going on, equally resigned and sometimes defiant blues lyrics and a killer guitar tone. Although I also truly adored the playing of Eric Clapton with John Mayall and Cream, Peter Green somehow seemed to be a deeper, more authentic bluesman than Clapton could hope to be. For one thing, Clapton (at least in his early years as star musician) did not particularly write blues and seemed to prefer bluesy psychedelia, which may have been more innovative than the Green approach, and not bad in and of itself, but was not as satisfactory.

Peter Green and Syd Barrett are perhaps the most famous, or notorious, LSD casualties of the crop of British musicians who broke through to popular success in the mid-Sixties, post Beatles period. In about 1970 and when Fleetwood Mac were riding high as blues act and about to move beyond that box, Green's acid intake fried his brains and he left the group for a life of obscurity, initially completely outside the music industry, subjected (allegedly) to all kinds of interesting psychiatric treatment. In the late Seventies he returned with a trio of albums on PVK Records with weirdly laid back (actually just enervated) music that was neither the rollicking blues of early Fleetwood Mac nor the highly tuned pop rock of the later Fleetwood Mac.

Chris Prior liked these albums enough to play tracks from them on his radio show of the time. For the life of me I could not understand why this stuff had been released at all. The word soporific seems to have been coined for these slow, depressed sounding songs with none of the fiery attack of the younger man. Perhaps the medication had so fried his synapses that he only retained the technical ability to play guitar but not the genius.

Green did not give up, though. After the early-Eighties success of Stevie Ray Vaughan and even the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and the Clapton blues approach of the Nineties, blues became popular again and Green could make a decent living at the craft of playing the music he obviously loved. He formed the Splinter Group and played gigs where-ever anyone would have him, and even recorded again.

The Robert Johnson Songbook album became a special project for him, much like Eric Clapton with this Me & Mr Johnson and The Sessions for Robert J albums. I never bought any of the Splinter Group releases because they were quite expensive in Cape Town and I had my suspicions about the quality of the work on those albums. There was no way I was going to waste R300 on a piece of dubious material by a musician whose work I no longer trusted. In the meantime I bought every blues era Fleetwood Mac album, live collection or compilation I could find.

On my most recent holiday in the UK, in April 2012, I not only found the CD of Kiln House, the first post Peter Green album by Fleetwood Mac (and of which I'd once owned the record) but also took a daring step and bought a double CD collection of tracks recorded live at London's Ronnie Scott's club in 1998. It was cheap especially given that it is a double album. The title is Soho Live, at Ronnie Scott's.

In possibly late 2011 I'd bought a different collection of live tracks from a Fleetwood Mac member, this time by a blues band put together by Mick Fleetwood, with guitarist Rick Vito doing duty as replacement for both Peter Green and Lindsey Buckingham.

Apart from the Fleetwood Mac member, both albums have in common that the bands perform Fleetwood Mac material and that in both cases the product is not very satisfying as blues albums. The musicians are highly proficient and have been playing these songs for a long time, yet the pervading feel and atmosphere is of high end bar bands going through the motions, as if the musicians have been playing the songs far too often to be able to extract anything new from them anymore.

The first disc of Soho Live comprises of 4 Peter Green compositions associated with Fleetwood Mac, and four blues standards, while the second disc concentrates on Robert Johnson songs but with one Green tune in "The Green Manalishi" and three other blues standards. The musicians have played with Green for many years and everyone is very proficient on his instrument and knows the material well. The major problem with this set is that it is too proficient. The performances are kind of pristinely well executed with no sweat or urgency.

One of the first shocks is Peter Green's almost unrecognisably ragged voice on opening cut, "It takes Time", one of two Otis Rush songs on the disc. It's as if Green's vocal chords were first cut and then sandblasted. Maybe it was first song nerves, as his voice improves as the set moves along. The Green guitar style is present and correct and still thrills even if one detects a loss of the sharpness of yore. The music also comes across as somewhat stodgy and the rhythm section has little swing. I guess Green will probably never be reunited with his old rhythm section of John McVie and Mick Fleetwood and that is a pity. For a bunch of English guys they could sure play the blues as if they were born in Chicago. The Splinter Group members were clearly born in the UK and cannot be faulted for taste and subtlety. They just do not seem to swing enough and the entire presentation smacks a tad too much of veteran musicians doing what they do for a living very well and without actual passion.

For this reason it is difficult to pick out any highlights or weaknesses on the first disc. The band delivers what it promises on the label.

I first heard Otis Rush's "Homework" in J Geils Band's live take on Live Full House and much later the Fleetwood Mac version on Blues Jam in Chicago. Both versions are rather faster and lighter of touch than the Splinter Group offering. It's as if age has truly slowed the guys down but I guess they chose to slow down the tempo. The loss of urgency sucks the excitement from the song and makes it more of a lament than it was to start with. In fact, this really sounds like some old guy leering at school girls he can no really longer entice because he has neither money nor looks.

Dr Feelgood recorded a version "Hey, Mama, Keep your big Mouth Shut" for the Sneakin' Suspicion album and managed to turn the usually reliably exciting Bo Diddley riff into a dull grind and on this album the Splinter Group repeats this feat. I can hear the attempt at a great groovin' riff that falls flat because the syncopation just ain't there. It is too precise, too fastidious. A relaxed, loose take with more urgency would have made for a killer track. This is not an irredeemably horrible version of the tune, simply not a very exciting one.

The band do better with "The Supernatural", an ethereal, spooky instrumental in the vein of "Albatross" and even "Rattlesnake Shake" though this live take is a good deal different to the Fleetwood Mac original. The reimagined live shot does not have the menace of the original version but bounces along nicely with good humour and solid playing that for once do justice to the tune. This live version of "Albatross" also does the original justice with just a wash of organ in the background for a new instrumental texture, which, served up in a more bombastic vein, almost ruins "Shake Your Hips" by rudely intruding on the lissom, playful signature riff. It might have seemed like a good idea at the time but here it is just a blemish on an otherwise good version.

The first five tunes on the second disc are from the Robert Johnson songbook and opening cut "Travelling Riverside Blues" is not sung by Green but by Nigel Watson. The first two tunes are acoustic, with only guitar and Green's blues harp backing and once again the flaw is that though the songs are played well enough the vocals completely lack the driven passion of the Robert Johnson originals. In fact, I would be so bold as to say that Eric Clapton's versions of these songs outpunch the Splinter Group's interpretations for dexterity, insight and pure unadulterated fun. Even more pertinently, Jeremy Spencer's piano version of "Hellhound On My Trail" on Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac is possibly the absolutely best take on any Robert Johnson song that I have ever heard.

The band kicks in from the third tune and on "Last Fair Deal Going Down" and "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day" the so-called Street Angels join in to bring a little infusion of gospel fervour to the performances, very reminiscent of the type of thing Delaney and Bonnie did on their Motel Shot album. The earlier po-faced, sober and almost solemn acoustic readings of the Johnson tunes now really seem diminished in stature in contrast to these rollicking, rambunctious workouts. Even blues about death and the Final Judgment can be hugely enjoyable.

"Green Manalishi" brings back some tasty menace and mystery in a powerful rendition that continuously simmers like a witches brew. Green plays his most forceful, inspired solo of the night. For a change the almost heavy rock organ forcing its turbulent way through the rest of the instruments supports the mood of the tune. A triumph.

"Goin Down" maintains the faster tempo and "Help Me" slows it down again with, presumably, that amazing thing Peter Green can also do with a blues harp. He may not be the greatest virtuoso on this instrument but he can sure make it do things that run shivers up and down my spine. I've heard various versions of this old warhorse through the years and Sonny Boy Williamson probably still does it best. Here Green's torn and tattered voice fits perfectly and the slinky groove of the riff is rendered to perfection by the band. This is a blues for listening to in the dark when you are alone and desperate.

The set ends with "Look On Yonder Wall", a tune I know best as a slide guitar driven monster, also performed in many versions by many musicians. My favourite version, the first one I ever heard, is by Homesick James, some relative of Elmore James, which sounds extremely primitive and loose, as if it really was recorded in some tar paper shack in the Mississippi Delta by a bunch of share croppers who only ever play at fish fries or country juke joints. The Splinter Group give it the big gun journeymen treatment that befits a set closer. Green's vocal would have suited the somewhat more muted Homesick James version and the band's grandstanding is at odds with Green's take on the song. A few more grammes of intensity are required.

Maybe White blues is a young man's game. This live collection is not bad. It is simply not terribly exciting. On the same holiday that I bought the Splinter Group album I also bought one of the single discs in 'n three separate disc set of albums recording a gig the Peter Green Fleetwood Mac played at the Boston Tea Party circa 1970, a concert that has been released in so many chopped and changed versions it almost demands a discography of its own. My first version of it was on a record called Fleetwood Mac Live that I later duplicated on CD in my quest to own just about every Fleetwood Mac album ever released provided it was the blues band version of the group. The energy in the music from the Tea Party show is ten times that of the Splinter Group. Forty years of ups and downs must make a difference but in Peter Green's case the years have not been kind in the sense that they've brought more depth or emotion to his interpretation of the blues, at least not on the evidence of Splinter Group album. There are oodles of competency and craft and a paucity of heartfelt commitment. In 1970 the playing the blues may have been a vocation. In 1998 it was just a day job.







Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain

George Clinton formed The Parliaments and made pretty standard vocal group soul music until he and his mates, allegedly, took LSD, saw the light and got their freak flags out. The Parliaments became simply Parliament and that mutated into the almost alter ego Funkadelic, originally just the backing band, and Clinton was off and running in the rock influenced Seventies street funk sweepstakes with possibly the most outrageous collective of them all.

Parliament was defined as the horn driven vocal group and Funkadelic was the guitar based funk rock band. The two bands shared personnel and live shows showcased songs from both groups, hence the appellation of Parliafunkadelicment Thang.

In 1978, amidst the post punk New Wave frenzy of the English music scene, Funkadelic had its biggest hit in Britain with "One Nation Under A Groove"' a long, lazy funk tune with a catchy sing-a-long chorus.

The NME was my first and only source of information about the P-funk because this music was not being played on Radio 5 even if it were a disco station at the time, because Funkadelic did not fit into the disco mould despite being at least as outrageous as the Village People.

The records were also not available in Stellenbosch. The American music scene of the time was full of street funk bands, much like rap is the biggest thing today, and many of those, like Brass Construction, Tower of Power, the LTD band, Fat Larry's Band, Earth Wind & Fire, and so on, were available, but Parliafunkadelicment Thang was unknown.

This changed for me on a visit to the Silverstones discount store in the Picbel Parkade in central Cape Town, somewhere between 1979 and the end of 1981 when I found three Funkadelic albums at once: Hard Core Jollies (1976), One Nation Under A Groove (1978) and Uncle Jam (1979).

Hard Core Jollies was on the whole more of a psychedelic guitar rock album than I had been expecting from the NME's articles. The other two were closer to the disco that was so overwhelmingly prevalent at the time although I would guess that it would be typified as simply freaky funk.

Of course I was prepared to like all of it simply because it came endorsed by the NME yet I was not always convinced by the silliness that accompanied the more interesting stuff. Both One Nation Under A Groove and Uncle Jam seemed like albums of mostly jokey filler with a couple of monster dance grooves. One Nation Under A Groove also came with a bonus EP with two funk tracks and a live version of "Maggot Brain", the title track of an album released in 1971. These albums were confusing. Was Funkadelic a rock band or was it a funk band?

The answer, kind of, came in the shape of Funkadelic: The Best Of The Early Years, Volume One, on Westbound Records. This album contained a bunch of funky, tough, soul rock tracks. This was what I wanted to hear! The disco sounding stuff was mostly absent; the rock and roll was very much present. "I Bet You", "Can You Get To That" "Funky Dollar Bill", "No Compute" and "Philmore" were standout tracks that sounded like a collection of hit singles and probably were in some alternative universe and were completely at odds with my perception of Black music from the Seventies, which was all about The Jackson Five, The Temptations ("Papa Was A Rolling Stone"), Stevie Wonder, Billy Paul, Bill Withers and The O'Jays. These acts were all over South African radio. Funkadelic certainly was not.

That was where my Funkadelic acquisitions rested for many years. I did buy a couple of Parliament albums along the way, as well, but no more Funkadelic, and even when I later acquired some CD compilations they tended to be of the greatest hits of Parliament.

In 2005 and from a street vendor in London I bought a DVD of a concert the P-funk collective played at Houston circa 1975, at the time when George Clinton was very much into the Mothership myth and the songs in the set comprise the early greatest hits of both bands, well before "One Nation Under A Groove". It is a great concert, full of the energy and weirdness for which Parliafunkadelicment Thang became famous or notorious.

On just about every visit to the UK since 2005 I've eyed the Funkadelic and Parliament sections of whatever HMV store I visited and yet never bought any of the albums, partly because they were not as cheap as my budget required and partly because there were so many albums I had difficulty making a selection. Ideally I should have started from the debut releases and then worked my way forward but it seemed to be too much of a daunting task and I did not have the patience.

On my 2012 UK holiday I went into a bit of a CD buying frenzy and bought at least double the maximum I'd previously bought, perhaps far too many albums, and one of them was Maggot Brain, the 1971 release, their third on Westbound Records. The CD release is the original album plus three bonus tracks. The previously known tracks were "Maggot Brain", "Super Stupid" and "Can You Get To That."

Some of this album is highly reminiscent of the solid groove funk the Isley Brothers produced on albums like The Brothers: Isley (1969) and Get Into Something (1970) where the Isleys married vocal trio harmonies, stoned soul and funk to produce a heavier sound than the old-fashioned Stax type of deep soul of, say, Otis Redding. The Isleys were still traditional enough, though, and kind of country going by some of the lyrics. George Clinton must have been paying attention to the sound and the attitude but with his much more lysergic insight into what makes a good song a truly terrific one gave us a whole new thing.

The interesting, and great, proposition of a Funkadelic album is that the music is quite varied in style, and not just hard funk.

"Maggot Brain" is a Hendrix-inspired and influenced lead guitar storm with a typically Clinton spoken word intro that sounds mythic yet is actually just a stone joke. Eddie Hazell plays the shit out of his Strat and his inspiration seems to be Electric Ladyland and Cry Of Love, rather than the early psychedelic rock Hendrix style.

"Can You Get To That" is a funky pop rumination on relationships. This tune shoulda been a hit, a palpable hit, on all kinds of commercial radio stations. Basso profundo counterpoint to chick singers gives us that old-time soul appeal with a song that makes a serious point wittily.

"Hit It And Quit it" has a keyboard led heavy rock base with shouty, somewhat unintelligible vocals and a greasy, great wah wah guitar solo.

Sly & The Family Stone supply the roots for "You And Your Folks, Me And My Folks" with bottom heavy, solid, grinding bass, jazzy piano and call and response vocal exchanges between the guys and gals. Sounds like a call for toleration and peace between humans.

The Jon Lord-style keyboards, heavy riffing and Hendrixoid screaming guitar solo turn "Super Stupid" into an anthemic hard rock classic.

With "Back In Our Minds" the band reverts to the stoned, loping funk reveries that characterised the P-funk for so long and differentiated it from its more staid competitors. A lazy trombone solo allows the track to take off into the realm of late Seventies reggae session guy, Rico.

The 9 minutes plus intense, rhythmic workout on "Wars of Armageddon" sounds a lot like the kind of hard funk jams on Miles Davis' On The Corner and I can imagine Davis must have taken a long, hard musical look at the new street funk styles epitomised by Funkadelic for his new direction.

These tracks were on the original vinyl release. The bonus tracks on the CD re-issue are interesting but not particularly vital except for those, like me, who truly want to hear as much P-funk as possible, in all its variations. Maggot Brain may not be a work of genius but it sure is a work of strangeness combined with groovy funk, heavy rock and a seriously skewed take on the USA of its time.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Albert King

I developed an affinity for the blues, and guitar style, of Albert King long before I started appreciating the blues of B B King, principally because my introduction to B B was an album of big band urban R & B, emphasising jazzy horn arrangements over incisive guitar solos, while my first Albert King album was Years Gone By (1969) on the Stax label, where Albert was backed by Booker T & MGs, the Stax house band, who gave Albert that patented Stax soul groove to work with while playing stinging, sharp lead guitar in stark contrast to B B King's churchy emoting and almost pretty playing. Of course, years later, I realised that B B King could play as tough a blues lead as Albert could but Albert King is still my first love amongst the Kings.

Stevie Ray Vaughan was much influenced by Albert and one can hear it in his playing though Stevie was prone to indulging in much lengthier solos than Albert ever did, and was more fluent with it. Albert was the master of the short, sharp flurry of intense notes.

In one of the first explanations of the Albert King guitar style I ever read, the writer pointed out that Albert is not as technically able and fluent as, for example, B B King, but that he has learnt how to make the most of his vocabulary and is a genius at playing three notes in so many different ways that it never becomes boring. That he plays left handed on a conventionally strung guitar apparently also makes a huge difference in the sound he is able to pull from his instrument.

My initial interest in blues was sparked by the music of John Lee Hooker, particularly the furious primitivism of "Boogie Chillen" and then by the Chicago style of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. It took me a while to get into the lead guitar oriented stuff by the Kings, Buddy Guy and others because a lot of that seemed a tad one dimensional. I preferred the ensemble interplay of the Muddy Waters band.

I bought Years Gone By at the cosmically aptly named Stax discount store in Cape Town somewhere in the late Seventies when I was starting to build up a collection of blues records from the various discount bins at record stores around Cape Town. Stax was not a record store; it simply had a basket full of cheap albums.

I had read about Albert King yet had no idea what he sounded like. The unique selling proposition was that the record cost 99c.

On the album cover King stands on the stage of what probably was the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, in front of a psychedelic light show, dressed in a smart-casual sports jacket, holding his Gibson Flying Vee guitar, looking like some weird, large professor of the blues.

Anyhow, the album cover seemed to be a marketing ploy to bring home to the various audiences who might be buying the album that Albert was hip to the psychedelic vibe yet still knew where his roots were. Curiously, too, Albert King smoked a pipe on stage. Not many bluesmen did that. You'd think he should also have been wearing slippers and a comfy cardigan.

The music on the record was pretty straightforward Stax soul with Albert King's piercing blues licks and fervent vocals on top. "Lonely Man" had an insistently catchy riff (that is, coincidentally, also the riff to "I Take What I Want" on Sam & Dave's debut album), and "Cockroach" was perhaps the most interesting, "real life" blues lyric I'd heard particularly given that the album was recorded in 1969 when one would have expected even blues guys to have had a more modern take on the trials and tribulations of the man kicked out of his woman's bed. "The Sky Is Crying" is a straightforward blues trope, written by Elmore James, recorded by many.

"Drownin' On Dry Land" is a great double whammy: it comes in two parts. The first part is the vocal blues, with the great punch line of the narration about a dog on a railway line who "lost his whole head looking for little piece of tail." This double entendre was pretty amazing and very funny. The second part is an instrumental.

I love this album. It is deep blues and deep soul at the same time. A terrific combination.

A couple of years later I bought Live Wire / Blues Power (1968), a selection of tracks from a concert at the Fillmore in San Francisco in June of 1968. This was a pretty good collection though not as powerful as Years Gone By. For the most part the performances seemed a tad lacking in the fire of the studio set. It might be due to the fact that the MGs are not the backing band. The best number was "Blues Power" where Albert carefully explains to the White kids what the blues are before tearing loose on a vicious solo that still gives me the same visceral thrill each time I hear it.

Somewhere in the Eighties I came across a cassette version of the 1974 Stax album, The Pinch, with a pointlessly updated version of "Oh, Pretty Woman" and King's version of the soul classic "I Can't Stand the Rain." The title track was one part double entendre vocal version and one part instrumental. I guess the genre can be called relaxed, funk-inflected blues but it was not very engaging because of its easy listening appeal. King was trying to modernise his sound and looking to record tunes that had more in common with the big R & B ballads of the day than with downhome blues. This state of affairs was not at all satisfactory to the blues freak in me. Little Milton, and for that matter, B B King or Z Z Hill, did it so much better. I wanted my Albert King with some bite and not with the smooth affectations of a Grover Washington Jnr.

Some years later I bought the CD of Wednesday Night in San Francisco, which comprises of performances from the same series of shows as Live Wire / Blues Power, and also a greatest hits set on a budget label that specialised in blues compilations. This collection showcased tracks from the early Fifties, when Albert's style and musical backing was not a million miles different to what B B King was doing at the time, to the full flowering with the Stax label and the better known King songs.

My latest acquisition, and first successful download from the iTunes store, is King of The Blues Guitar, a compilation album released by Atlantic Records in 1969 that combines the tracks from King's debut album on Stax Records, Born Under a Bad Sign, with six tunes previously released as Stax singles.

Several of the tracks on King of the Blues Guitar were covered by any number of White blues bands of the era. Cream did "Born Under A Bad Sign" and Led Zeppelin incorporated elements of "The Hunter" into "How Many More Times" (from their debut album) and many years later, deep into his blues move, Gary Moore recorded "Oh, Pretty Woman."

"I Almost Lost My Mind" (written by Ivory Joe Hunter) and "The Very Thought Of You" (the signature composition of Ray Noble, an English band leader and not really a bluesman) find Albert in crooning style, with tinkling jazz piano, saxophone solos and flute, as if he were adumbrating the Tony Bennett blues album of the early years of the 21st century. King sings sweetly and affectively yet it is an anomaly in the company of the other, more gut-wrenching blues. Even the guitar solos are a tad cloying. Late night, supper club blues. I guess Albert King was venturing into B B King territory, seeking pop hits with a blues inflection.

"Born Under A Bad Sign", "Personal Manager", "Cross Cut Saw" and "Laundromat Blues" are the real deal, the best of King's time at Stax. The rhythm section is taut and tight, the horns incisive and the lyrics present an up to date twist on the age old concerns of the blues.

"Overall Junction" and "Funk-Shun" are instrumentals with punchy horns and stabbing lead guitar licks, and one can see them as set openers for the mood setting effect they would have on an eager audience anticipating a great show of fierce guitar blues.

These instrumentals seem to be little more than excuses for extended solos and do not have the instantly memorable riffs or hooks of, for example, Freddie King's "Hideaway" or "San-Ho-Zay" that were probably written as ear catching dance floor fillers. In Albert's case his instrumentals may have been simply album fillers.

Since I bought Years Gone By I've also became familiar with the work of various other blues guitarists, like T-Bone Walker, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Jimmy Dawkins and, of course, Jimi Hendrix, and the White guys who followed them, like Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Mike Bloomfield, Jimmy Page, Duke Robillard, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bob Margolin, and beyond. Whereas there are very few blues bands that emulate the great Muddy Waters or Howlin Wolf bands of the Fifties and Sixties, there are a great many lead guitarists out there playing variations on the blues themes established by their predecessors. Most of them are basically journeymen who are adept at the craft of playing the blues without much brilliance or innovation. Albert King obviously also worked hard at learning his craft but he had that spark of individuality that set him apart from the pack (for all his vaunted, or real, rivalry with B B King, down to having guitars with similar names) and still makes him a unique instrumental voice in the blues genre.

Albert King was physically big, had a big personality and a matching big sound. He never became the ambassador of the blues that B B King has become, partly simply because he has outlived so many of his peers and partly because, like Louis Armstrong, B B King craves the validation for a genuinely outstanding career.

Albert King just got on with it and then found himself in the right place at the right time with the right sound to reap maximum benefit from the interest a young, affluent White audience started showing in blues and so he ended up bestriding the Fillmore stage in his houndstooth tweed jacket, smoking a pipe, in front of a psychedelic light show and bringing his blues power to a roomful of stoned hippies.




Sunday, August 19, 2012

Natasha Meister goes half way towards the blues

Natasha Meister came to my attention when she was given a full page spread in the Cape Times' Top of the Times entertainment supplement on Friday 20 January 2012. My impression was that she was some kind of very young, very beautiful Canadian blues guitarist, now settled in Cape Town, and who not only ran with the likes of Dan Patlansky but who was a serious songwriter too. During the weekend in advance of which this feature was published Meister was to support Patlansky at a Kirstenbosch gig.

I then looked her up on YouTube and coincidentally and perhaps most significantly, also came across Sixgun Gospel.

There are a handful of Meister clips on YouTube, including some of a solo performance in which she is seated on a high stool and accompanies herself with her Stratocaster, for some internet based radio station.

The first impression from these clips, after the reinforcement of how young and beautiful Meister is, is that she is not in any particular way a blues guitarist or blues singer. She sounds more like a folkie with an electric guitar, writing pop melodies with deeply meaningful lyrics. So much for the hype, I thought. The chick totes a mean looking Strat yet makes music that is soft at the centre, pretty and pointless in the bigger scheme of things.

On one day of madness at The African Music Store in Long Street I bought Sixgun Gospel's debut EP, Peachy Keen's debut EP and the full length album, Half Way, credited to the Natasha Meister Band. I guess Meister had both more ambition and more money than the other two bands, hence the full length album. The band is ostensibly a trio but from the CD insert I gleaned that two other guitarists contribute to the recording.

The set is not exactly deep blues, but what I would simply describe as bluesy pop. Meister has an affecting voice, at times reminiscent of Nora Jones or a less soulful Joss Stone, that is a tad too smooth but she sure can sing. Along the way one does hear a good deal of jazzy blues chord progressions and tasty blues licks. Natasha Meister sure can play guitar – if the most prominent guitar parts are her contributions. Even better, she has a voice that bears repeated listening.

This is not a blues album, though. In the USA at least there are currently a number of women who are taking on the traditional blues male bastion as singer and guitarist of no mean ability. Meister is still young enough to have a long, hard road of learning ahead of her and in due course she may well achieve a tougher blues approach but here she seems to be hedging her bets with also wanting to make radio friendly music than hard core blues. Meister's music verges on soft rock. "Good Thang", the second last track, is pretty much the toughest offering on the album with the most emphatic blues soloing. The rest is kind of in late period Bonnie Raitt territory, with a less lived-in voice.

Another analogy is to Jan Blohm whose studio work is essentially AOR with bluesy vocals while he sounds much more like a blues guy when he plays live, especially when he works within a trio format where the overdubs and extra instruments of a studio production cannot be reproduced.

Perhaps Meister rocks as hard as any when she is on stage and will be able to give any veteran blues guitarist a run for his or her money when she settles into a groove and grinds out those deep blues licks.

This is what one would call an assured debut, an album that makes one look forward to the next one, which hopefully will be an album that will be more assertive musically and with more memorable tunes. The production is excellent but, as is customary with producers (and studio savvy backing musicians) who are more keen on eliminating flaws than retaining a bit of looseness, the edge has been taken off and sophisticate production values win out over a the necessary modicum of rawness or quirkiness that would have made a good album a powerful album.

I like this record yet I am not moved by it. Too much care was taken with it and it is too careful. The blues have to be at least a little dirtier than this. This is a late night, quiet hours, kind of album, which is not a bad thing, just a subdued thing. Next time Meister should not merely go half way but dare to strut it all the way.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Sixgun Gospel’s Original Sin

This debut release is a four song sampler and tantalising tease of more to come. Four tracks informed by roots blues, country and gospel yet no slavish copies that are rambunctious, rousing, joyous and exhilarating.

The influences are repurposed to bring us a brand new dress lovingly sewn from age old fabric. The product is bright and shiny and happy. One can almost hear the whoops and hollers of a freed spirit rushing into light and warmth.

Simplistically put, there are two main types of blues bands, other than the jazz combos backing the so-called "classic blues" of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and the like. On the one hand there is the band, whether it's a B B King Orchestra style of big, horn-driven group or basically a rhythm section, backing a lead guitarist. T Bone Walker, the various Kings, Buddy Guy, Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Dan Patlansky -- this is the lineage. On the other hand there is the small string band such as the Mississippi Sheiks or the so-called Bluebird style of the mid- to late Thirties, of small urban blues combos led by the likes of Big Bill Broonzy and Sonny Boy Williamson I, where the musicians play as an ensemble without a major lead instrumentalist, unless it happens to be the blues harp. The electric downhome bands Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf derives from this ensemble style of playing. Modern examples would be the early Fabulous Thunderbirds or The Red Devils.

Sixgun Gospel obviously comes at us from the latter playbook. They are, in South African terms, the anti-patlansky.

On the evidence of these four tunes I would not call Sixgun Gospel a blues band, a country band or even a gospel band. All of these elements are seamlessly glued together in the mix yet the whole is not exactly a product of all of these things. The lyrics are slightly odd. They sound like straightforward narratives but perhaps they are aphorisms, metaphors or allegories that are supposed to illuminate our lives far beyond the banal, direct meanings of the words. On the other hand, maybe you get what you see or hear.

"Apple Picker" opens with an ominous bass thrum and some airy slide guitar notes before the rhythm section kicks in to full effect. Danyella sings about a guy who picks apples on a farm. The job is easy yet boring. Weird country tale sung to a backbeat. The trouble with this track, and the other three, is that the bass guitar is far too prominent in the mix and the guitar not insistent enough. I would have though a unison slide and bass riff would have made a world of difference here.

In this kind of ensemble the rhythm section should swing subtly behind the guitar and harp, be there but not be overbearing. The guitar should be dirtier. Danyella's voice serves as an instrument as much as it is the vehicle for telling the tale of the lyrics.

"Fire on the Razorback" may be about a hog roast. I do not know. It does not matter. Slightly unintelligible lyrics are more mysterious and exotic than words you hear clearly. The listener's imagination is the powerful agent that makes the song memorable. This tune features carefully picked banjo and must therefore be kind of the country song on the record.

Blues people have been visiting graves and churchyards for a long time, reminiscing about lost loved ones. "Churchyard" is another chapter in this saga though it is not straight-ahead blues, and the same goes for "All The Way Gone", which is an almost blues and ends the mini-album on a high. Man, I can hear this as an elongated, exuberant set closer! Mass audience whoops and hollers in call and response!

It is a strength of the band that they do not regurgitate or imitate the models from which they work but do indeed forge a new sound and vision from the influences.

Danyella channels the classic blues women with a dash of Appalachian mountain holler in there. She testifies with fervent integrity and wholegrain intensity and if this is original sin she makes me want to be that sinner.

Murray Hunter blows his face out yet again. The blues harp must be one of the most versatile instruments ever with as much power, punch and drive as any amped up lead guitar and yet it can be so subtle, so sad, and so damn insidious. Hunter riffs and wails and amazes. More so than guitar or keyboard or even vocal, it takes a blues heart and mind and soul to make that harp do what hunter makes it do.

I do have a technical criticism though. That bass guitar unbalances the ensemble, particularly when listening to the music on headphones. That domineering bass is a tad alienating. On occasion the drums have too much of an Eighties boom too. My advice would be to mix the instruments in proportion to each other so that the guitar and harp get their rightful due, and to work out slightly more interesting and dirtier sounding guitar parts.

The instrumental rave up in the middle of "Churchyard" suffers most from the unbalanced mix. The drums and bass are way too loud. For the most part the guitar is lost. It is good and tasteful and too polite. In this kind of music the rhythm must be just prominent enough that the absence would be noted but must play the supporting role, underpinning the guitar, harp and vocalist and giving that all important subtle swing to the music.

Having said that, this debut is still a sparkling gem and hopefully a taster of greater things to come. I've already mentioned elsewhere that it is an unalloyed and bounteous joy to hear this kind of music played live by contemporary musicians who not only do loving justice to the genre and influences but also innovate, resonate and elevate.




Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Pretty Blue Guns shed their skin

Shed Your Skin is album number two from The Pretty Blue Guns, with a cover that reminds me of Black Sabbath's Master of Reality.
This time around the band gets heavier and emphasises the rock over the blues. The mood is also darker, as if the trappings of a sustained career success weigh heavily on the band. On the debut, Cutting Heads, there was a palpable sense of exuberant release. Here the world weariness enervates even the listener.

Shed Your Skin is the kind of record that will have to grow on you before it settles in permanently, whereas Cutting Heads did so instantly. I guess this is progress in song writing and divergence from the influences that drove them in the first place but somehow I miss the general lightness of touch of the debut. Obviously they must not simply retread the same stuff over and over again, yet there could have been more diligence in the tunes department. There is in fact too much of an air of having heard their approach to melody before albeit in a more zesty way than is apparent here. André Leo's distinctive voice needs more artful music to wrap his tonsils around; I have a sense of limitation that presumably does not do him justice.

The first half of the album is a bit of a slog. The first time I listened to it, was while it was playing on the stereo in the corner of the room while I was writing about another topic and after a while my comment was a very simple "I'm not loving it." It took a second listen through headphones to make me reappraise the songs. And a third listen to confirm my first impression.

From track 7 ("The Ride" – a sassy strut of a duet) onwards the album catches fire and the tunes start to take on individuality. "The Ride", "Saturday Night Scream" and "Stability" are by far the best songs here.

"Red Crow" ends the album on a real downer, despite the assertion that "God is with us." If that gloom is the alternative I would almost want to take up any offer the devil may want to make.

About two months after I wrote the above I listened to the album again through headphones and was much more impressed with it, particularly the first three tunes where the bass and sneaky little guitar riffs hit home with more of an impact than my first exposure to the album had revealed. Quite clearly the approach was to enhance the groove and the bottom end to produce more of an insidious rock element. The negative is unfortunately still that André Leo's voice just is not quirky or expressive enough to carry the dirge like tunes that most of the album consists of, especially "Red Crow" that should close the album with on epic note yet sounds more of a drag than ever. Even repeated listening does not yield any more than the wish that the song were a lot shorter and less tortuous.

It seems that the Pretty Blue Guns are in hiatus or something, with Leo promoting a different band. Perhaps Shed Your Skin took them as far as they could go, with no prospect for anything brilliant in the near future. I like the band, and liked their first album very much, and still do, and it gives me no great pleasure to report that the second album does not improve on the first or make one look forward to a third. Sometimes a band reaches a natural end to its creativity and positive energy. If this is it for Pretty Blue Guns, so be it. Not many bands even have that one great record in them. Cutting Heads is a