Friday, July 11, 2014

SA Bluesbreakers Breaking Out

I have it on good authority that the SA Bluesbreakers (2013) album was conceived as a project to showcase the recording studio and production facilities where the artists on this album recorded their respective takes on the blues, rather than as a genuine sampler of contemporary local blues or blues influenced acts. At least 7 of the 16 acts on offer here have made no previous impression on me as part of any blues scene or even as blues inspired in the first place, such as Piet Botha, Jesse Jordan and Akkedis, not to mention Nick Forbes, Kevin Floyd and De Wallen, of whom I'd never even heard before. On the other hand, the Blues Broers, Ballistic Blues, Boulevard Blues, Gerald Clark, Albert Frost, Black Cat Bones and Crimson House Blues are present and correct as working ambassadors of the blues or blues rock. Natasha Meister and Ann Jangle are affiliated with the local blues scene though their respective solo albums are respectively blues flecked pop and folky-country rather than deep blues.

Most of the acts perform a blues standard. Ann Jangle chose a Tom Waits take on gospel ("Jesus Gonna Be Here") and De Wallen cover Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Pride and Joy." Jesse Jordan selected as Tracy Chapman song. Somehow the Boulevard Blues version of Freddy King's "Someday After A While" is credited to Eric Clapton who recorded it on his 1994 blues covers album From The Cradle. As egregious an error, is the crediting of "Mary Had A Little Lamb" to Stevie Ray Vaughan and not to Buddy Guy. So much for a deep knowledge of the blues canon or just simple fact checking. On reflection, this kind of ignorance or sloppiness just irritates the hell out of me. If you don't really know what you're doing, get the hell out of the kitchen.

In fact, from Natasha Meister's take on "Crossroad" to "Pride and Joy," the nagging feeling, with a few exceptions, is that these musicians know the blues through third or fourth generation blues and rock artists, and not even necessarily from the Sixties blues boom, rather than from the source. As far as I can tell from personal knowledge, about only Blues Broers, Albert Frost and Gerald Clark have a deep and abiding interest in the old school blues of the originators and not only in the music and blues revisionism of the White acts that followed in the footsteps of the forefathers. Blues has been rejuvenated over the years and today the likes of Joe Bonamassa is regarded as the shining example of how to refresh a hoary old tradition. Having listened to some Bonamassa tracks I have realised that I do not like what he does even if (allegedly) B B King anointed him as successor of sorts. Bonamassa, and others who walk that particular walks, are possibly genuine in their interest in the blues or maybe it is only in the formal musical structure of the blues, and very earnest about their craft yet do not bring much more to the table than technical mastery and that earnestness. Turning up the volume and playing lengthy, deft solos does not bring feeling and depth into the blues and certainly does not enhance the standards.

Natasha Meister's album opening cover of "Crossroad" is a perfect illustration of my gripe. I have no idea whether Meister has ever heard the Robert Johnson original. She chooses to redo Eric Clapton's arrangement from his Cream days and does a creditable job though not a mind blowing one. It is just amped up pub rock blues at its core, perhaps done in this way for commercial appeal. It tells me nothing about Meister as musician, unless it is that she can play the guitar well, or her insight into the blues. I can see where this performance would be a crowd pleaser, though.

And that is the short and the long of this compilation. The musicians most likely had some fun recording these songs and one cannot doubt the professional competency but when you get right down to it the album is a just showcase of tracks that would sound good on the jukebox of some watering hole for blokes who like their beer and shooters and enjoy shooting pool. Where there is drinking to be done, blues rock is just about the perfect rock soundtrack. The backbeat is exciting, you can dance to it and white hot guitar solos always excite.

The production values on the album are high. The performances are in general workmanlike and get the job done. The album is not a revelation and there is not much here that would make me rush out to find albums by the acts I do not already have in my collection.

Now that I've listened closely to Natasha Meister doing "Crossroad" I am struck by the palpable lack of passion or engagement in her voice. She has a good grainy soul type approach that would fit in with any number of US female blues guitarists / vocalists and her guitar playing is absolutely storming but she truly sounds as if she is phoning in the vocal track.

Black Cat Bones take on "The Hunter" (perhaps most famously, other than Albert King himself, done by Free) and bludgeons the riff something fierce. Like the Natasha Meister track, it is in fact just powerful hard rock when it is playing and yet quite forgettable once the last notes fade out.

I really like the raw, infectious ferocity of Albert Frost's take on "Parchman Farm." I've seen YouTube clips of him doing the same number backing himself with the aid of some kind of tape repeat device on which he plays the riff on one guitar before switching to another to play the lead parts. It is a riveting performance. Frost sings with passion and feeling and his guitar playing is fierce, intricate and well arranged. A very good version of this song.

"Hallelujah, I Love Her So," one of Ray Charles' big hits (and a tune I know best from a version by The Blues Band) is unaccountably abbreviated to just "Hallelujah." Sloppy fact checking again? It is clearly a well-loved song for Gerald Clarke who's recorded it on a video of a West Coast show as well as on his Black Water album. He still toils in the soul-blues-rock field of late period Delta Blue and does a great job of interpreting this standard. Clarke has one of the best blues / soul voices in South Africa and it is always a pleasure to hear and feel his commitment to whatever he is doing.

Ballistic Blues does a sturdy job on "Mary Had A Little Lamb," sounding enough like Stevie Ray Vaughan to bring home the connection and just different enough not to be slavish copy band, and then Ann Jangle, who really has a splendid voice, makes "Jesus Gonna Be Here" her own. The gospel influence of the tune and her take on it are closer to the blues than some of the earlier bombast on the album. Jangle is quite clearly in the emotional moment when she sings. Great song, great performance.

Wouter van de Venter performs "29 Ways" with some real gusto and a sense of gleeful enjoyment. He was one of the first Afrikaans rockers and who seems to have faded somewhat because his old school Superstrat shredding style probably no longer found the young audience who doted on Fokofpolisiekar and the abundance of Afrikaans rock bands that followed in their footsteps. He is a prime mover behind this collection as engineer and producer and probably band leader and on "29 Ways" (once da live staple of the Blues Broers, if I am not mistaken) he does a credible job as born again bluesman and actually produces a version that sounds like power blues and not just blues rock. A rousing performance.

The Blues Broers follow with "When My Baby Left Me" and showcase their strengths in blues harp, blues piano and blues guitar in an energetic romp. Once they were the industry standard for local blues and they are still that as a live act thought their recent albums have a far more diverse sound than just blues. The unique selling point of the Blues Broers has always been that they seem to esteem, love and respect the genre and know the value of laying back on occasion rather than amping it up all the time. Simon Orange's virtuoso keyboard playing also sets the band apart from the rest who still rely on big guitar solos.

On this album the hoary old set-closing classic called "Mojo Working" here, is performed by Crimson House Blues, a band that mixes up all kinds of roots sounds and has a gruff, gritty vocalist who sounds as if he's shredding his vocal chords on every song. The song is always a top favourite, regardless of who plays it, and this almost traditional version is great fun. In fact, this almost the most authentic blues performance on the album. In my mind's eye I can picture these guys on the porch of some country store in Mississippi playing the King Biscuit Flour show on some hot, muggy Delta afternoon.

For some odd reason Piet Botha has elected to give us his version of the well-known blues standard "Cars Hiss By My Window" by noted blues band The Doors, from LA Woman, which was their blues album. Perhaps the song is from the Riders of the Storm covers band project in which Botha has participated. Anyhow, over the years he has recorded his take on the blues, notably with "Blues vir Louise" and an Afrikaans version of "House of the Rising Sun" and "Cars Hiss By My Window" is not completely out of place in that company. Botha's laconic, talk-singing style works well and the performance has a good deal of slow burning authority.

Nick Forbes does a workmanlike, raucous shuffle-and-slide-guitar take on "Kansas City," followed by Jesse Jordan performing Tracy Chapman's "Gimme One Reason," which I recognise as something of a hit from her debut album, back in the late Eighties when she was briefly bigger than Colossus, and turns it into a blues, if it wasn't one to start with, and quite successfully too. It is not a completely rethink of the song but it is sufficiently different that it took me a listen or two before I recognised a song I had not heard since about 1988.

Led Zeppelin was one of the first and best proponents of heavy blues and "Since I've Been Loving You" is a fair approximation of a blues standard and Kevin Floyd does it respectful justice and, barring the absence of a Robert Plant sound-alike, his version is solid and enjoyable enough, if not adventurous or inventive.

Surprisingly Boulevard Blues, who tend simply to rock the blues, does a good, sensitive job on Freddy King's (and not Eric Clapton's) "Someday After A While." It is restrained and quietly authoritative. In fact the highest praise I can give it, is that it is a blues and that this is one of the album tracks I'd have on a mixtape.

Akkedis has been around for more than a decade now, and has teamed up with Piet Botha in the tepid Lyzyrd Kings project, but is not a notable blues band. Originally they sounded like country rockers and lately they seem to mine a White reggae groove. "The Thrill Is Gone" is B B King's greatest hits and his interpretation is definitive. One approaches it at one's peril. To the credit of Akkedis they don't replicate the King version and do a jazzy, slow blues version with some really tasty guitar licks. Oddly, this performance makes Akkedis sound like a late Sixties Dutch blues band such as Livin' Blues or The Black Cat Bone.

De Wallen close the album with the second Stevie Ray Vaughn inspired tune of the set, albeit one he wrote. Unfortunately the guitarist does not have Vaughn's subtlety and overpowers the song with extreme soloing.

The album goes out with as much power as it came in. Unfortunately this also means that the album opens and closes with the least impressive performances.

SA Bluesbreakers is a worthy collection and a good starting point for anyone who wants to investigate the current South African blues and blues rock scene. The acts on the album are not the only practitioners in the genre and not even necessarily the best but each of them is probably worth some attention, however fleeting. Natasha Meister has, or is about to release, a second album and I would be interested in finding out whether she remains on course as sophisticated AOR singer songwriter or whether she will dig deeper into the blues. Albert Frost is also about to release a new album by his blues trio and that is a record I am definitely looking forward to.

Compilations like SA Bluesbreakers are usually simply a snapshot of a time and place in rock history. It will be a good keepsake to remind us that fads come and go, as will surely be the case with this one, yet the blues will endure.







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