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.