Mean Black Mamba is a South African contribution to the contemporary trend of guitar and bass duos as well as one of the slew of bands that form part of the South African neo-blues scene of the past five years or so. The Mean Black Mamba sound is pretty much influenced by, and sounds like, the somewhat primitive gutbucket electric blues that can still be found in the rural backwaters of the USA where the musicians often still have day jobs to support their families and play in back country juke joints for pocket change. Any number of these bands also consist of only a guitarist and drummer.
The feral sound of Mean Black Mamba is in stark contrast to another such contemporary neo-blues duo, The Parlor Vinyls, from Stellenbosch, who worship at the feet of Jack White, although both of these bands may well owe a debt of inspiration to early Black Keys.
The current (as of mid-2014) South African blues rock revival or resuscitation is an interesting development away from the prevailing modern rock, dance pop and folky sounds. After the heady days of the early Nineties when the Frick brothers made an effort to establish a blues scene in Cape Town, and the number of blues bands that sprung up at the time, there was a long dry spell where blues kind of went underground and became unfashionable. The kids wanted to rock in a contemporary fashion. With the neo-blues scene the emphasis is less on purist blues and more on blues rock or music on which blues is an influence if not always the primary influence. This new interest in an old-faithful genre that often sinks below the commercial radar but has never disappeared, is probably a reaction against the somewhat clinical, bloodless, predictable and commercially calculated music of so many other local bands. At the very least blues rock really rocks and at its best relies not only on catchy riffs and fluent guitar solos but also on strong tunes and a massive spirit of good times.
Guy Collins and James van Minnen, respectively guitarist / vocalist and drummer of Mean Black Mamba, write their own songs in the spirit of the Mississippi Delta filtered through the modern urban sensibility. The music is heavy on amplified and distorted blues licks and slide guitar with shouty vocals. It is not exactly the current Black Keys mix of blues and soul and maybe country, possibly because the South African musical experience would not include these different though complementary genres as a matter of course, as it might be for an American musician. The sound of Mean Black Mamba is basically visceral boogie and would go down a treat in a small, hot, sweaty backwoods juke joint.
The opening track on their eponymous debut album is also called "Mean Black Mamba," which is their Africanised take on the venerable "Black Snake Moan" or "Crawling King Snake," and In fact, the nearest overt influence on these guys would be the primitivist old-time blues of the typical Fat Possum artist. Guy Collins has a serviceable voice for the blues yet does not strain to sound like some old Black guy from the Delta (or even an American) and that is great. Blues are everywhere and can be sung in all manner of local accents. The lyrics do sound like modern urban blues, without slavishly trading on the folk clichés that may have meaning in Mississippi yet mean jack shit in South Africa.
Collins rings a number of changes on the African roots hypnotic blues boogie without sounding too much in thrall to any particular tradition and provides enough innovation and variation on venerable themes to give us a guitar sound that is at the same time like nothing out there and yet keeps bringing back echoes of bits and pieces of my own record collection.
"Poison In My Head" is a particularly good example of Collins combining a traditional South African mbaqanga guitar style with a blues boogie, with lyrics to match. In the Delta they sing of gypsies. In South Africa one sings of Sangomas.
I must confess that I am a sucker for this kind of music. Simple, infectious and rocking. Unfortunately I have this niggling dissatisfaction with the album because so few of the tunes are good enough to linger in my head. To paraphrase Robert Christgau's comment on The Dead Weather, the songs will make no sense or impact separate from their parent album even if they have a vigour, a brio and an idiosyncrasy that is rare on the South African musical scene. The worst part is that the individual tracks are somehow diminished by listening to the album in one go because there is little to distinguish the one from the other over the duration. For example, "Fire on The Floor" (the 10th track) is the first one since opening cut "Mean Black Mamba" to have a really good catchy riff or, at least, a riff that will stick in my mind. I guess it is down to failure to write catchy songs and simply putting words to a bunch of blues based riffs. Penultimate track, "Staring At The Sun," has a shouted chorus that makes one sit up and take notice again though the instrumental track is a tad too much of the same as heard before.
Final track "Sacred Ground" is sung in a somewhat different tone of voice than all the other songs and if the sleeve information did not credit only Guy Collins with vocals I would have guessed that James van Minnen finally got a chance to crack a tune. The song sounds more like a gospel folk song with fuzz blues guitar backing than the basic boogies of the rest of the album and is a quirky ending to a collection of gutbucket blues tunes.
Will Mean Black Mamba have a future on the local music scene? Hard to tell. They make a tough blues noise but have not yet written great tunes and over forty or so minutes of a CD the songs start losing their impact, muck like with Seasick Steve's albums. Guy Collins is going to have weave a radically different tapestry of new and innovative ideas into his boogie blueprint if he wants Mean Black Mamba to thrive in places other than small clubs or bars.