Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Sex Pistols Play Bollocks

The cover of Never Mind the Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols (1977) is pretty ugly and yet attention grabbing and that effect and result must have been intentional given the provocative stance of the Pistols' marketing campaign and Jamie Reid's graphic designs.

The music is not so ugly although there is still plenty of outrage to be had in the lyrics to some of the songs. The Pistols did not write love songs or pastoral ballads and definitely did not play semi-symphonic prog rock dealing with the high concepts of interstellar travel or the inherent insanity in all of us. Johnny Rotten enunciated his sometimes hateful lyrics and delighted swearing with a clear glee and joy in the exhilarating now of epater le bourgeosie.

I had never heard anybody swear on record before I listened to the Pistols' debut album and it was terribly exciting in repressed South Africa, but as far as I understand it was also outrageous in the UK where artists had far greater liberty to express themselves fully in whatever fashion they chose.

At first exposure the massed guitar wall-of-sound on the record did not seem revolutionary to me and I wondered what all the fuss had been about. This stuff did not sound so far removed from a similar guitar sound coming from, by then, outdated glam rockers Slade, a particular early-Seventies favourite of mine. At the time I listened to Never Mind the Bollocks for the first time, probably somewhere in late 1978 or maybe even 1979 (back in the day such music came to Stellenbosch fairly long after release), I had been reading the NME for a couple of years and was fully au fait with happenings on the UK punk front yet had not heard any of the seminal punk recordings. In fact, the first New Wave album I owned was My Aim Is True, by Elvis Costello, hardly the loud, raucous, three chord type of music I fondly associated with punk, in the light of the NME's coverage of all things punk. The Pistols' music sounded pretty orthodox to me; in fact, though the production values gave the sound a huge wallop, the basic Pistols riffs could have fitted in well on Cheap Trick's In Color album, also from1977.

The main differences between the Pistols and everyone else in the mainstream lay in Rotten's sneering ultra-English vocals and the lyrics that seemed to be only about all the subject matter and people Rotten hated and despised. Rage and disgust come to mind as description, though I would not have thought that the Pistols were that angry or even that disgusted with the world around them. On the other hand, the lyrics do sound like an alienated adolescent's blast of vituperation at a world he does not understand and that does not understand him. Basically Rotten slags off humanity and its machinations, though the targets were probably more directly involved in his life than mere generalisations. Pauline who lived in a tree and had an abortion was purportedly a real life Pistols fan. Rotten also does not like the late Seventies New York scene, buzzing around Max's Kansas City and CBGB's, that preceded the London punk scene and partly inspired it, and he is pretty vituperative about the Pistols' experience with the big record company EMI who signed them and dropped them, leaving them with money in their pocket.

The four singles collected on the album, although not sequenced chronologically, with "Anarchy in the UK" in the middle of the second side, prove that the band, with Glen Matlock's pop sensibility, could write memorable pop songs. "Seventeen" and "No Feelings" add more proof. I am not saying, if the Pistols sound reminded me of Slade, that they could have been a killer singles band, like The Jam, but they could have come close if allowed to prosper.

The story is well known: the Pistols were in their way as much a project band for Malcolm McLaren, as the Monkees were for whomever though them up, and the Pistols never outlived their usefulness or outstayed their welcome unlike the careerist punk contemporaries such as The Clash or The Damned.

Oh, except for the Nineties reunion, with Glen Matlock seeing as how Sid Vicious was not available to tour, which, as John Lydon was not ashamed to crow about, was strictly about the money the young Pistols never made. One could understand how Deep Purple or Uriah Heep, or any of their peers, could carry on as middle aged guys but the Pistols were not supposed to be about carrying on regardless. And yet, given that they needed to pay the bills and were professional musicians, they did reunite and did play "Anarchy In the UK" and "Holidays in the Sun" one more time. Well, many times. And probably more expertly than in 1977 yet with less piss and vinegar.

The Pistols have left us just his one studio album, and a lot of product marketed strictly for exploitation. Never Mind the Bollocks is not the best punk album ever but it is the best Sex Pistols album ever and a pretty good one anyway. The CD version of the album I now own, courtesy of Cash Crusaders, has no bonus materials; no unreleased live cuts or demos; no lyrics and no band pics. It is pretty much the original vinyl version but sounds amazing through earphones and strangely tinny otherwise, unless it is because I did not turn up the hi-fi to max volume.

The Pistols' debut was the first punk record I owned. I got into The Clash only with London Calling and never bought anything by The Damned, The Stranglers, The Jam when they were either punk or New Wave. For this reason and for the seriously good pop nous of the great songs, Never Mind the Bollocks will always be my favourite punk rock album.



Tuesday, February 21, 2012


I am not averse to the jazz experience yet I believe that it is a highly intellectualised music that has been put on a pedestal it does not require or deserve, as some kind of higher music, a means of expression that reveals the naked emotions of the musician and reveals truths about the person the world the musician lives and works ins that somehow cannot be expressed in any other kind of music.

My first serious exposure to jazz came in the form of a box set of recordings from the Twenties and Thirties by the band leader Fletcher Henderson, called A Study in Frustration. My understanding was that Henderson had higher aspirations than merely leading a dance band but that he could not convince critics or the public. The music is mostly akin to the raucous, exciting sounds of the Louis Armstrong Hot Fives and Hot Sevens of the same period, yet there is also an arranged quality to it. Henderson's arrangers made structured dance music from the rough and ready improvisational ideas of New Orleans music and the Henderson band sounded like an improvisational, syncopate combo, but was infinitely more sophisticated than that. Anyhow, I loved the music that sounded somewhat chaotic yet always gelled and was terribly exciting. Amongst other greats, Henderson had employed Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins, two innovators in their respective fields.

This box set was in the Stellenbosch municipal library. The library had other early jazz collections of music from New Orleans, Chicago and New York, a series of records forming and anthology of the recordings of Bix Beiderbecke, trumpeter and cornet player (the original template for the doomed young jazzman) as well as some of Duke Ellington's greatest hits. The latter did not impress me that much at the time, as I was into simple, rough music and Ellington's big band sound was far too sophisticated for my liking.

The one other interesting jazz album I remember borrowing from the municipal library was John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. Why the library had only this one Coltrane album beats me unless it was the expressed supposed spiritual content of the record that a librarian thought of as Christian jazz. Coltrane's name was familiar to me as a leading saxophone player but I knew very little else about him. This album consists of three rather long pieces, much longer than the short, sharp bursts of excitement I had experienced with Fletcher Henderson's band, that require a lot of work to understand and appreciate. It was an acquired taste for me and I almost forced myself to like this stuff because it was so way out of my comfort zone. It seemed to me that Coltrane wanted to make a virtue out of squeaks and squawks that sounded decidedly unmusical by stating that this was some kind of expression of a higher reality or of a quest for something deeply spiritual that went beyond mere proper music.

Then I wasted time on Grover Washington Jnr's Winelight album. This type of jazz lite is what I believe came to be included in that grouping of anodyne slop called "quiet storm" and intended for super romantics who love bear skin rugs in front of fireplaces, or maybe just people whose idea of good music is music that disappears into the background. I cannot believe that anyone would want to make this kind of useless, pointless, emotion free music, much less actually and willingly listening to it. If I remember correctly I got through perhaps two tracks before I realised this music would blow my mind in a way I would not want it blown, and took it off the turntable.

I feel much the same way about the music of Kenny G whose live album must be one of the most oxymoronic offerings ever. Who would want to pay to go listen to this guy? Who would want to make the effort to go out to hear this guy play?

I never got into buying jazz records until the early Nineties, as I was much more interested in rock, blues, funk and reggae. The firs jazz albums I ever bought were in fact a compilation of Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Sevens sides and a compilation of Django Reinhardt's hits. Both of these records featured the visceral, exciting sounds of what was once known as hot jazz. In the case of Louis Armstrong, in particular, I recognised that his trumpet solos sounded very much like the kind of guitar solos I liked in rock or blues and this gave me a closer connection, apart from the simple thrills of the energised music.

My mate Sean Rosenberg had a collection of jazz albums, mostly Miles Davis sides from the late Fifties and early Sixties and I had listened to some of them at his house, mostly out of curiosity, and none of them moved me very much. They were fine yet not exciting enough engage me.

In the early Nineties a local record company released a series of budget jazz compilations, for example by Coleman Hawkins, Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhardt, Dizzy Gillespie and others. My mate Flip Swiegers and I bought some of them. Mine were the Montgomery and Reinhardt records; his were the more conventional jazz sides. In due course, as I recollect, I gave him the records I'd bought on the premise that he would find more use for them, as he was very much into jazz and into learning how to play jazz guitar. The records kind of bored me and I was anyway more interested in buying CDs than records.

The Louis Armstrong and Reinhardt CDs were stolen from me in 1993 and I never replaced them, mostly because I could never again find those albums.

In the Eighties there was a Jazz Café in Woodstock and on Sunday nights the Base night club in Shortmarket Street offered a jazz club as well. I went to the Woodstock a couple of times, the first of which was the launch party of Andre Letoit's Ver Van Die Ou Kalahari album, and was a frequent attendee at the base on Sunday nights where the jazz tended to be the fusion sounds of The Genuines and Wired to the Floor, neither of which appealed to me all that much as jazz combos. There did not seem to be too many "normal" jazz ensembles in Cape Town.

Back in the late Seventies or early Eighties the Alphen Hotel in Constantia offered jazz on a Sunday afternoon and this was apparently a quite popular attraction, for the student crowd at least, on warm days. You could have a drink or two, relax and listen to jazz that was no doubt smooth, cool and anodyne. I never made that scene.

The other type of jazz that seemed to be popular, particularly as entertainment at popular events such as the Community Chest Carnival was the New Orleans style jazz of combos like The Riverboat Jazz Band who played their middle aged white guy versions of the type of thing Louis Armstrong's Hot Five or Hot Seven did so much better. The Riverboat Jazz band seemed to have fun and was adept at the ensemble interplay one expects from the New Orleans style, yet it seemed too studied and rehearsed. It did not sound as if these guys were really improvising. They had a songbook, with arrangements and stock phrases, and could only play what they had learnt to play. It was fun but not very interesting.

In about 1987 the Cape Town Jazz Club, or whatever it was called, moved from the upstairs room in Salt River to the Base in Shortmarket Street on Sunday nights. On Friday and Saturday nights the Base was home to an alternative crowd of hipsters who grooved to a mixture of African music, reggae and funk, with some soul thrown in for good measure. Back then liquor licenses for clubs were very strict and it was difficult running a club on a Sunday and sell liquor at the venue but somehow the Base managed to do it. The promise of jazz, though, meant that the Base mostly hosted fusion bands such as Wired to the Floor, which seemed to be the house band they there so often, and The Genuines. The best actual jazz came from the nights when Basil Coetzee's jazz mbaqanga group played or when Robbie Jansen's Heartbreakers played. Coetzee and Jansen were once part of the Dollar Brand / Abdullah Ibrahim group and were founder members of Sabenza, Coetzee's Cape Town inflected African jazz combo before musical or personal differences caused Jansen to form his own group.

Gavin Minter, of Wired to the Floor, has a gravelly voice reminiscent of Michael Bolton and his management probably wanted to position him in as a troubadour who could sing the hell out of soul jazz ballads, to make the commercial impact, and then play his brand of fusion jazz on stage to appease the diehard jazz fans. Wired to the Floor was a four piece with a guitarist who also operated and controlled, with his guitar connections, a series of keyboard sounds. The sound, apart from ballads like "My Cherie Amour", was Eighties jazz funk.

The Genuines was also a four piece that f featured Hilton Schilder, son of the Cape Town jazz legend Tony Schilder, and Ian Herman, probably one of the best drummers in South Africa at the time, and in the world. Their music was jazz based funk rock, also typical of the Eighties, mostly played at breakneck speed and versatility. The interesting difference was that the Genuines started incorporating Cape Town goema sounds as well, and in most sets had a separate little section where vocalist and bassist Mac McKenzie's father came on stage to play banjo on a couple of Cape Carnival styled tunes.

Jazz was, and still is, big on the Cape Flats but it tended to be jazz funk. The community out there want to be able to dance to their jazz. There was not, however, all that much "proper" acoustic jazz around in Cape Town.

The first time I experienced this was in about 1993 or 1994 at a curry house in Observatory where Quasimodo du Jazz played in the upstairs room on a Sunday night. This was a quartet led by a hunky saxophone player who interested Flip Swiegers sufficiently that he tried to book them into the floating restaurant Alabama, because he knew the owner, and then spun this whole fantasy of starting up a jazz radio station. This radio station, P4, did come into being but not through Flip and in any event was more into the Kenny G or Grover Washington Jnr. style of smooth jazz than the more challenging stuff and soon moved into general soul and R & B before it, too, became defunct.

Quasimodo du Jazz was your old-fashioned jazz combo that played music that was easy on the ear. I have no idea whether they were genius improvisers or just journeymen jazz students scuffling for a few bucks but I enjoyed the evening. Not that I went out of my way to seek out any other gigs they may have played.

The Green Dolphin restaurant in the V & A Waterfront has been a premier jazz spot in Cape Town for many years and was rivalled only by the defunct Manenberg's that started out in the CBD, failed, was resurrected in the Waterfront and failed again. I went to the Green Dolphin a couple of times with other people. On the last occasion the Tony Schilder trio play piano bar jazz. I was not paying much close attention but after about 90 minutes it seemed to me as if Schilder had been playing the same tune over and over. The craftsmanship may have been immaculate and consummate yet it bored the shit out of me. It really was not very entertaining and was specifically the type of jazz suitable only for providing some sort of gentle background noise in a room full of people who are drinking and chatting and who do not feel the need to concentrate on the music, as colourless as it was.

Although I love music and most types of music I have always had a particular pet hater for jazz fusion, in particular jazz/rock fusion or jazz/ funk fusion, based mostly on fusion music heard on the radio. One of the worst records I ever heard, and this takes into account Grover Washington Jnr., is a Billy Cobham album my mate Dan Lombard lent me in about 1981. I'd forgotten the name of the album and for many years I fondly believed that John McLaughlin was the guitarist on the record, but after googling Billy Cobham's discography, I now believe that the album might have been Cobham's début as leader in 1973, called Spectrum. The guitarist is Tommy Bolin, who later played for the James Gang and Deep Purple.

To be candid about it: this record offended my sensibilities from the almost the first note. It was not that I was a jazz purist and felt that this unholy noise was not jazz at all. I just did not like the frenetic, busy attack of Bolin, Cobham and Jan Hammer.

All the tunes were taken at a furious pace and each one sounded exactly like the previous one to the extent where I was not only irritated by the sound, which I disliked, but by the fact that these jazz guys could not vary the pace or add different textures to their work regardless of their no doubt advanced technical skills. I listened to the album once and never again and for years it has been the benchmark by which I measured my intense and enduring dislike of jazz fusion.

After Miles Davis broke new ground with Bitches Brew it suddenly seemed very logical for many musicians to go the fusion route, either (from the jazz side) to make some money the straight jazz environment could not provide or (from the rock perspective) to add some intellectual depth to a music that has always been seen as somewhat dumb. One of way of upping the progressive ante was to incorporate elements of classical music' the other way was to incorporate elements of jazz.

Various Miles Davis alumni founded bands like Weather Report, The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever, all of which featured amazingly talented and technically able musicians and probably made amazingly complex music, yet all of which sucked when you came right down to it. There was zip visceral content for me and zero entertainment.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever and Weather Report featured musicians who had played with Miles Davis when he embarked on the electric route that led to jazz fusion. All of a sudden jazz ventured into the highly commercial spheres of rock and funk and jazz musicians started making more money than ever before. No more smoky, dingy clubs; with the fusion thing large stages and massive publicity became the norm. Technical ability still counted for a lot and I guess a lot of geeks who would not necessarily have liked acoustic jazz too much could get off on the perception that they were listening to loud music that also had the cachet of being made by proper musicians who knew many, many chords, inversions, scales, modes and notes, where the basic rocker was supposed to get away with knowing just three or four chords, some riffs and a bunch of standard licks. These were the kind of guys who boasted about how awesome Mahavishnu Orchestra was purely because John McLaughlin was such a great guitarist.

I, on the other hand, loathed that type of technical virtuosity that seemed to have no emotional centre whatsoever; regardless of whatever pseudo-Zen utterances were made by the musicians, and absolutely hated jazz fusion with a passion that has been exceeded only by my loathing for the music of Phil Collins.

The Jazz Crusaders dropped the "crusaders" part of their name and also made commercially viable jazz lite and backed Randy Crawford and B B King. The part of Earth Wind & Fire's funk workouts that I heartily disliked was the jazzy horn charts I saw as coming straight from a big band jazz perspective. When Sting left the Police to pursue his solo career he made use of jazz as a root for his music, given that he was originally a jazz bassist. This meant that he may have made music that was more complex than the Police hits but that was also almost completely lacking in any interest for me. I absolutely hate the music of Phil Collins, whether with Genesis or on his own. He once drummed for a fusion band called Brand X and later led a big band of his own. Enough said. If Phil Collins thinks he can do jazz, especially commercially viable jazz, then jazz should just die.

Maybe I am a reactionary but I still like traditional jazz, whether it is based on the New Orleans template, or the mid-Fifties style acoustic style of an improvising bop, post bop, cool or soul jazz combo. Not all of the latter is that engaging though it is at least list enable.

I have read that the French group St Germain is the bestselling jazz group ever, especially with its Tourist album. I own Tourist, as it was recommended to me by Braam Botha, whose musical taste does not always gibe with mine but who has good taste nonetheless, especially in the more esoteric fields of music. Anyhow, I would not have thought of St Germaine as a jazz band at all. Tourist is an album of relaxed beats and samples (John Lee Hooker features) that I would have placed in the category of Moby's Play rather than with Kind of Blue, though the slow, deliberate tempos and ethereal horns makes St Germain bedfellows of Miles Davis. I guess this means that St Germain's music is yet another example of jazz fusion; this time the fusion is with the more contemporary modes of hip hop and ambient dance rather than rock or classical music. It seems that jazz can be brought to bear on just about any genre of music. At first jazz men took showbiz standards to jazz up and now they can take entire schools of music and incorporate those elements into their jazz and make it new.

Over the years I have read a lot about music and have bought a lot of books about music, mostly on the topic of rock, but I have taken note of the lives of the major jazzmen and the developments since the beginnings of jazz and the modern innovators, who have returned to the acoustic tradition as a reaction against the egregious commercialism of fusion. I own a biography of Miles Davis as well as book on the making of Kind of Blue, and a couple of collections of the writing of Garry Giddins, and there are references to jazz and its practitioners in various other books I own.

Jazz is therefore not completely beyond my ken. It is simply a music I have to date not made an effort to collect. I bought Kind of Blue in December 2011 simply because I could get it for R40 at a second hand book store in Montagu and because I knew it was meant to be a classic jazz album and thought it would be interesting to listen to at last. In close succession thereafter I got hold of MP3 versions of Sketches of Spain (the follow up to Kind of Blue) and On The Corner, recorded some 13 years after Kind of Blue. These three albums illustrate a cross section of the music of Miles Davis, from small group improvisation to big band arrangements to radical electric funk avant garde probably unlike anything released at the time. Of the three albums, only On The Corner hits home. It demands the attention and engagement of the listener the other two more ordinary records do not

From the first minute to the last it pulls you in, refuses to let go and does not let up until you are wrung dry. This is what I call a desert island disc. Much more so than Kind of Blue, never mind how popular that album is.

Jazz went mainstream in die Fifties when less discerning listeners could latch on to the cool sounds of the West Coast school and went highly commercial when jazz funk and jazz rock reached out to the masses who could now either dance to a contemporary version of jazz or could believe that it was sophisticated and intellectually superior to listen to rock supposedly elevated by the jazz infusion. In the late Eighties there was a reaction, from younger musicians and some old school guys, who returned to the acoustic, purist roots and eschewed flashy, overtly commercial trappings and made music that was more intimate and apparently no less compelling or commercial.

I read about all that stuff and none of it ever appealed to me, certainly not on paper and not very much when I heard it.

The North Sea Jazz Festival came to Cape Town in the Nineties, post 1994 and has since mutated into the Cape Town Jazz Festival. Ti is a big thing for Cape Town each year, with a free teaser concert on Greenmarket Square proceeding the festival weekend. At first the festival was at the Good Hope Centre but since the Cape Town Convention Centre became available as a venue, the festival has been held there. The performances attract a sizable crowd and I would imagine the festival has kept going because it is consistently successful and because it is a cultural showcase for the city and for South Africa.

I have not had one single iota of desire to attend this jazz festival. From a casual glance at the line ups it has always seemed to me that the weight is towards divas and commercial funky or smooth jazz of a kind that is no doubt regarded as highly sophisticated yet leaves me utterly cold. The endless virtuosity of jazz musicians sometimes simply irritates and the crowd pleasing vocalisation of the divas grates. The festival is a showbiz event with all the concomitant showbiz pretentions. I would much rather listen to an interesting small combo in an intimate space, if I were to make an effort to go out to catch live jazz.

One of the most distressing jazz evenings I ever experienced was at a dinner at Marco's African Place where a small jazz band backed a vocalist who provided dinner entertainment of sorts by running through a series of jazz standards in a less than engaging fashion. I cannot complain that the band did not know their stuff or that the singer had a bad voice. The effect was simply of a professional group doing their professional thing with no real heart, soul or fire. There was absolutely no excitement in the music. I felt sorry for the entertainers who probably do this kind of gig night after night and never manage to rise above this desultory level. The weird thing was that the audience consistently showed appreciation for this tired bouquet of perfunctory standards as if they were at Carnegie Hall listening to the Modern Jazz Quartet backing Ella Fitzgerald. The terrible aspect of the show was not that it was bad, it was simply useless technical adequacy.

That is the major flaw in jazz. The musicians are technically able yet seldom manage to surmount the obstacle of that technical skill often is to the goal of making music that is visceral enough to make a mark. I am not a musician and the chord shapes or inversions mean little to me, regardless of how clever or sophisticated they may be. I listen to a performance and if it is not appealing on a gut level, the technique means nothing. Virtuosity is not necessarily an advantage or even a desirable attribute in music if it is the only positive a performance has going for it. The emotional pull of a piece of music, the visceral punch of it, is what makes it worthwhile and memorable.

That is why On The Corner is the best Miles Davis album I have ever heard.



Monday, February 20, 2012

Son Seals

Son Seals plays guitar with a fluid ferocity and sings in an enraged tone of voice. He's been to church and he's been to the juke joint.

He died in 2004 at the age of 62 after a career spanning more than 40 years, from the early Seventies when his brand of blues was no longer hip or popular through the Eighties blues revival driven by the more commercial and smoother sounds of Robert Cray and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and into the Nineties when the interest in rootsy blues had been sustained and elevated into a much more commercial approach for working bluesmen.

I used to own the LP version of The Son Seals Blues Band (1973), his debut album on Alligator Records, and it was also the first Seals CD I bought, through at no little expense and effort. This record has one of the great album covers: a fish eye lens shot of Seals' hands on the neck of his guitar, his contorted face in the background. A last remnant of 60's psychedelia for a working bluesman who will probably never number amongst the pantheon of true greats, but who made some fine blues in his time.

On the debut album Seals plays in the busy, melodic style of Magic Sam, backed by a small, tight combo that drives really hard. The recording might have been a long time coming and the performances were well-honed and highly pleasurable. "Your Love Is Like Cancer" is one of the most intense pain-in -my-heart type of blues I have ever heard and the metaphor is quite clever. From opening track, "Mother-in-Law Blues" to closing track, "Now That I'm Down", the backing musicians cook with gas and Son Seals wields his ax with maximum fiery power and deep emotional effect. Truly one of the great modern blues albums.

After that I bought Bad Axe (1984) and Nothing But The Truth (1994) on CD and was quite disappointed. The Son Seals band now included a horn section, absent on the debut album, and a far less swinging rhythm section. The joyous exultation of the debut had given away to the sound of journeyman blues player who has to rely on outside songwriters for his material and who somehow must conform to a more contemporary take on how blues is to sound. Son Seals had become more like Little Milton, which was not as such a bad thing, but the execution was lacking. Bad Axe sounded especially stodgy to me. This was by no means an essential blues album.

A couple of days ago I was digging around in one of the boxes in our backroom that houses the bulk of my CD collection, mostly the albums I had bought in the many years before we moved into our house about 18 months ago, and came across some blues albums I had not listened to for a long time, and one of them was Nothing But The Truth. I then listened to it again, on earphones, whilst I was whiling away the time with FreeCell and I was surprised by the quality of the material and the production on this album.

Opening track, "Adding Up", a cheating blues in the vein of Robert Cray, is a blast of fun. The guitar soars and cavorts and Seals sings in an outraged bellow that almost sounds like he's having the fun of his life discovering how his woman is running around. It is a loud, assertive, swinging performance that sets the tone for the rest of the album. All in all Son Seals stamp his authority on our world and on the blues world and shakes off the journeyman's careful and measured approach to his craft. The man can play the guitar alright and he can sing with the going-to-church soul intensity of a Bobby Bland. The best part is that the band behind him has that backbeat swing going on, the lightness and deftness of touch that means a horn section that accents rather than emphasises and a rhythm section that bounces rather than plods. The guitar solos are searing, nimble, exultant, melodic and always make a point that resonates. I truly, truly had a great time revisiting a record I had written off in the past, for no good reason that I can now think of. I must not have listened to it properly the first time around, or perhaps the lacklustre Bad Axe prejudiced me. Hmm, maybe I should look for Bad Axe and re-evaluate it, too.

That Nothing But The Truth was released in 1994 may perhaps have been its saving grace. The terrible production techniques and methods of the Eighties no longer applied and it was once again cool to apply old school values to old school music. With this album Son Seals managed a successful mix of uptown R & B sophistication, which used to be a death trap for him, and the Chicago West Side sound he espoused at the start of his career.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Sixgun Gospel at the Kimberley Hotel


Some weeks ago I was on YouTube to look up a video by Natasha Meister after reading about her upcoming gig at Kirstenbosch Gardens, supporting Dan Patlansky. The Meister clips were interesting but the real find was a couple of live performances by a Cape Town combo called Sixgun Gospel. I had never heard of them before.


The Sixgun Gospel sound was what I would call shitkicking roots blues with a gutsy female singer who looked as frail but whose raucous, sexy voice obviously filled the room. It would be an understatement to say I was mildly astonished at the existence of this, to me, hitherto totally unknown ensemble in a musical genre I dote on. It also showed me yet again that I no longer have my finger on whatever musical pulse exists in Cape Town, unless there is a relevant poster on the hoardings pillar at the bottom of my street.


Anyhow, I filed Sixgun Gospel under bands I would most likely never experience as a live event but whose CD I would hopefully eventually find at the African Music store, unless they insist on releasing tracks only online.


Emma, the 20 year old hip kid who now lives with us, told me that Pretty Blue Guns and Shadowclub, both bands I rate highly, would be at the Kimberley Hotel on Thursday 9 February 2012, and I decided that this was an occasion not to be missed, both because I dig these bands and because the Kimberly Hotel is about 10 minutes' fast walking distance from my house. Originally Emma would have come along too but on the night she decided to stay home, allegedly for reasons for tiredness but it may also be that it would not be ultra-cool to be seen at this kind of gathering in the company of some weird old white dude.


9 February 2012 also happened to be the night on which Mr J Zuma delivered his State of the (Alie)nation address from Parliament. When I arrived at the bottom end of Buitenkant Street, at the intersection with Roeland Street, where the Kimberley Hotel lurks, the area was awash with police vehicles and the police that came with the vehicles, making this little corner of Cape Town temporarily the safest section of town to be in, unless you were going to be a threat to the lives of any government official or Parliamentarian attending the big speech night.


Shortly after my arrival at the Kimberley I witnessed what I guessed to be Mr Zuma's motorcade motoring down Roeland Street and turning into Buitenkant Street, presumably after conclusion of the big hoo ha at Parliament. Like Elvis, Mr Zuma clearly thought it expedient to leave the House as soon as his star turn was done. I did not count the number of sleek black vehicles in the motorcade but it almost seemed infinite, like a vehicular symbol of presidential power, and reminded me of similar scenes from any number of Hollywood type movies. It was impressive, all right. The concept of "entourage" was coined for just kind of elevated situation.


I had not been inside the Kimberley Hotel since 1994 when the Blues Broers played there one night, introducing the less than satisfactory John Mostert as new lead vocalist. The late Nico Burger was still the main oke on lead guitar but the very young Albert Frost was his understudy. It was a good rockin' night of superb local blues.


It is therefore fitting that my return to the Kimberly is occasioned by music of a similar stripe though neither Pretty Blue Guns nor Shadowclub are particularly blues bands though the influences and underlying themes are there. The Pretty Blue Guns are closer to the blues and Shadowclub are closer to the rock; the one band relies on subtlety, wit and big tunes and the other relies on big riffs and raw power with hooks as a bonus. As I've said: I fancy both.


The downstairs bar of the Kimberley was pretty full and I bought myself a beer and went looking for the gig. At the bottom of the staircase leading up to the rock and roll arena, I paid my R50 and got a fibre pen mark on my wrist to prove that I was legitimate. A couple of hipsters were discussing the intricacies of the guest list with the woman who took the money. If I understood the situation correctly, one part of the duo was on the guest list and the other was not and was verging on extreme bitterness for having to pay the entrance charge. The guest of the lucky guest lister could not qualify for free entry. Big dumb tragedy! At least it was a "two for the price of one" deal.


It was already crowded upstairs, at just after 21h00. When I went to Zula Bar last year, being kicked out of the house for book group evening, I made the fatal mistake of arriving at Zula at 19h00 when the staff members were about the only living humans in the place. Back in my serious clubbing days I never went anywhere earlier than about midnight and even though the music at the Kimberley kicked off around 22h00, it still seemed strange to me that the jol was so early.


I watched the Zuma motorcade from the covered balcony. The area was crowded and most people there smoked. I was under the impression that smoking was unlawful indoors at venues like this and it would have been disingenuous to make out a case that the balcony was an outdoors space, as it was so fully covered that the smoke could not escape. I escaped instead and wandered around the other rooms.


At this point I had no idea that there was any other band on the menu, other than the two I had come to see. I walked into the room with the small, low stage and saw one young guy sitting on a chair, fiddling about with a resonator-style amplified acoustic guitar and another young male standing upright with a semi-acoustic looking bass guitar cradled in his arms. The guitarist had longish hair and wore a white shirt and loose tie that made him look like a schoolboy circa 1979. The bassist wore a hat atop a puffed out mop of hair in a style that made me suspect he's seen a photograph or two of The Band circa 1968 and models himself on Rick Danko.


These two waited around on stage for quite a while the disco played. I guessed that this ensemble must be some kind of folk blues combo opening for the headlining bands, as some kind of purist contrast to the amplified conceits of the acolytes of the Marshall arts.


At some point, when I had been watching the dudes on stage for the duration of my bottle of beer and nothing changed, I started wondering whether this was a piece of performance art. The two guys looked like art or drama students.


A bit later a small, thin guy with dreadlocks wandered to the rear of the stage and sat down behind the drum kit. Then an equally small guy with a neat haircut and suspenders holding up his pants arrived on stage. He was the blues harp guy. Lastly the lead singer arrived. Her name, as I learnt on my way out of the venue, is Daniela and she is small, dark and dangerous looking, has a big smile and sings like an angel with the devil inside.


And so it was. They opened with "You Gotta Move" and I was immediately stunned and amazed. This was probably Blind Gary Davis filtered through the Rolling Stones yet it was raw as all get out and as persuasive an argument in favour of playing God's music in the devil's way as I have ever heard. This music rocked in the way old-timey roots music rocks and it was good.


The weird part was that the musicians all looked so impossibly young. Their parents would not even have listened to this stuff. How on earth did the kids get this particular spirit?


The drummer had donned a black Stetson hat that made him resemble a thin, young Ronnie van Zandt as drummer. He played supple, swinging beats that moved the music forward and acted as the rock solid base for the others to exult to. The harp player blew his face out, swaying and dancing while he blew. It was difficult to tell who his harp influences would be, as the sound was quite loud and the subtleties of intonation and phrasing were lost on me. He sure was animated and dynamic though, second only to Daniela.


The bassist did this weird thing with his right hand where he played the strings on the neck of the bass, as opposed to above the pickups, as if he were doing a tapping exercise, which looked completely out of kilter to your bog standard blues bass technique. I was wondering whether he was adjusting the strings? The bottom end was still pretty deep and grooving though. In blues the bass is meant to be unassuming yet deeply missed when it is absent.


I was standing at one side of the stage, furthest away from the guitarist and could not really see what he was doing or hear too much of his guitaring. He mostly seemed to be playing slide, which is not a bad thing. Due to the less than stellar sound at this kind of event, and especially if one is standing right in front of one of the speakers, it is difficult to distinguish the individual contributions and tonight I did miss out on the guitar. It should be light and swinging yet piercing, forceful and not afraid to make a glorious noise when required. For all I know this is what the guy does; I simply could not experience it properly.


It seems that the axman is the master instrumentalist of the band. After a couple of numbers he swapped his guitar for what is announced as a really old banjo – sounded nothing like the Cape carnival players – and for the last numbers of the set he stood up and strapped on a white Strat. The banjo must be the clue to the diversity of influences and sound. The acoustic instruments reflect roots blues and blue grass styles, and also that often there was not a great deal of difference between the styles, when one listens to real old-timey music from the deep backwoods of the American South.


The country, blues and gospel mixture affected black and white, sharecroppers, lumber camp workers and travelling men alike. The folk primitivism now so prized was not a deliberate effect. It was the way the music was being made and I would bet that at any given time the musicians went to great pains to own the best equipment and achieve the highest technological standards available to them. That this music sounds bare boned and unsophisticated to us, simply tells us how accustomed we've become to audio enhancement of one sort or another that has nothing to do with the basic product.


Daniela was the revelation, though, dressed all in black with hair severely pulled back and covered by a band of cloth, like an Edith Piaf of the blues and gospel. She sang the hell out of the songs, smiled, danced, lifted her skirts and did little hoe down dancing kicks. She informed us that the "sixgun" part of the band name is one word. Nice to know. Best of all was that she has this voice that inserts itself into your mind, body and soul and when she does the gospel thing you feel that the spirit could move you too. If the band was generally having fun, she was having the rave.


The pity of it, in venues like this and with the limitations the equipment has, is that I, at least, can barely make out the lyrics or recognise songs unless I know them well from another context. Apparently the set contains a Bob Dylan tune from his reborn Christian period as well as a Johnny Cash song. I would not have known if I had not been told this. The sound was worse for the other two bands who trade in big rock noise and to a degree the roughness of the mix should suit the style of Sixgun Gospel, as one does not want the music to be too sophisticated or too intelligible. It would be nice to discern lyrics though and for that I would imagine a somewhat larger venue would be ideal so that one can stand further back and not be pounded by the sound.

The room was full when the band played. Either they had a big following already or the crowd were into this goodtime music. Possibly both. Eventually the front line members of the audience were almost dancing on the stage. And dance they did. When the backbeat cracked and the band swung, freaky happy dancing was the order of the day. Not so strange, given that Sixgun Gospel make Saturday fish fry party music but I was still amazed to note that the dancers were very young and generally so hip looking one would hot expect them to dance in the first place, much less dance to roots blues. Kind of heart-warming, especially when the musicians appear to be having a great time and are making a joyful noise to boot. I am unashamedly fond of blues and old time gospel. It took me a long time to get into country blues, as I was initially a Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and John Lee Hooker fan because they made such exciting electric blues, and now this stuff seems to be more satisfying for the simplicity and raw emotion they make such virtues of.


Sixgun Gospel is a great proposition. They are electric, electrifying and roots and that is no mean feat.


So, if I cannot tell you much about the songs I heard, apart from the truth that it was an amazingly exciting set that had my one foot tapping (I am too old to allow myself to dance in my special weird way), I can testify that this opening set was the highlight of the evening. The following acts paled in comparison, and they were pretty powerful in their own right, but the lack of fun and entertainment was an unfavourable contrast. If I had gone home straight after Sixgun Gospel left the stage it would have been a perfect night at the Kimberley.


The other downer was the terrible time I had trying to buy additional drinks. Obviously I should have been intelligent enough to go to the downstairs bar instead of trying to attract the attention of the two overworked barpeople upstairs. The irritating part was that they seemed to follow no system of establishing a serving order and then making sure that they do not serve newcomers at the bar before people who'd been waiting for a while already. It was so bad that when I finally got a chance to place a drinks order I not only placed one for me, a double Jameson's, but also for some female stranger behind me who bonded me briefly with me while we grew older together waiting for attention.


The end result was, when I left the Kimberley at the end of Shadowclub's set, that I was somewhat drunker than I had anticipated I would be. Daniela was at the bottom of the stairs along with some other dude who was selling copies of Pretty Blue Guns latest CD. Daniela had been around and about upstairs all night after the Sixgun Gospel set, but I did not have the inclination to approach her then. Buying the CD gave me the golden opportunity to compliment Daniela on her band's set and to ask the question bugging me since they'd played. I knew they had some video clips on YouTube but I did not know whether they had a CD out or perhaps downloadable tracks. So I asked her about that and learnt that Sixgun Gospel has laid down some tracks but has nothing ready for release yet. Okay, another reason to stay optimistic then.


Then I started babbling and gushing, I guess, about my interest in this genre and my take on it and my perceptions of what the music represents. At some point the guitarist joined us for a few moments and started telling me about his guitar and what the point of the resonator was. Of course, I've forgotten arcane facts about blues and gospel this dude is googling only now and for a moment the bad know-it-all version of me almost jumped up and put this tyro straight. Fortunately I caught myself in time. It is good that people learn about this stuff and discover it for themselves and want to share it. After all, he does not know me from a bar of soap and maybe he thought my musical tastes runs to old fogey styles rather than the Sixgun Style, despite my presence at their gig and my gushing over it. When I realised that I had to go before I really starting boring my small audience with my overpowering drunken enthusiasm for music in general and blues and gospel in particular, I tore myself away, shook Daniela's hand, left the building and caught a cab home.