(first draft written in 2012; finished off in July 2014)
On Friday 20 January 2012 there was a full page article on Natasha Meister in the Top of the Times entertainment supplement to the Cape Times. My impression was that she was some kind of young, beautiful Canadian blues guitarist, now settled in Cape Town, who could not only trade blues riffs with the likes of Dan Patlansky but who was a serious songwriter too. Meister was due to support Patlansky at a Kirstenbosch gig on the weekend following this feature. I then looked her up on YouTube.
There were a handful of Meister clips on YouTube, including some of a solo performance for some internet based radio station, in which she is seated on a high stool and accompanies herself with her Stratocaster.
My first reaction to these clips, after the reinforcement of how young and beautiful Meister was, was that she was not in any particular way a blues guitarist or blues singer. She sounded more like a folkie with an electric guitar, writing pop melodies with deeply meaningful lyrics. So much for the hype, I thought. The chick toted a mean looking Strat yet made music that was soft at the centre and pointless in the bigger scheme of things.
On one day of madness, not long after, 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, with the rhythm section comprised of veterans Roger Bashew (bass) and Paul Tizzard (drums), but Bashew and Shari Meister also contribute guitar parts.
Half Way is definitely not a blues album. The set is a mixture of bluesy singer=songwriter pop and some tougher soul-blues tunes. Meister has an affecting voice, at times reminiscent of Nora Jones or a less soulful, less gritty Bonnie Raitt, that is a tad too smooth but she sure can sing. The pop songs are low-key, melodic and sang in an understated manner. The more soulful songs are sung in an altogether more assertive tone without actually giving us any of that old soul fervour or burning passion that would make all the difference between efficient and glorious. Along the way one does hear a good deal of jazzy blues chord progressions and tasty blues licks. Natasha Meister can play guitar – if the most prominent guitar parts are her contributions. Even better, she has a voice that bears repeated listening.
"Winter Storm," "You're So Good For Me" and "Good Thang" are the toughest blues inflected tunes on the album and are agonisingly brief glimpses into what Meister is capable of beyond the anodyne pop of the general trend on the album.
In the USA, at least, there are currently a number of women who are taking on the traditional male dominance of guitar blues as singers and guitarists of no mean ability. Meister is still young enough to have a long, hard, dues paying road ahead of her and in due course she may well achieve a tougher blues approach but on her debut she seems to be hedging her bets. She writes, and seemingly wants to make, radio friendly music in late period Bonnie Raitt territory. Unfortunately there is not much on this record that is memorable beyond the moment the CD stops playing. The tunes are just not strong enough and there are no catchy riffs or definitive moments. Even if Meister would just sing with more abandon and get a little crazy the album would have been more interesting.
This collection of tunes 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 sophisticated production values win out over a the necessary modicum of rawness or quirkiness that would have made a nice enough 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. Pleasant is not always pleasing. 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 and background music will never grab your attention. Next time Meister should not merely go half way but dare to strut it all the way.