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.