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.