Friday, July 11, 2014

The Blues Broers Return Out Of The Blue

(Caveat: I wrote this piece in July 2014; before I'd listened to the Blues Broers' 2014 album Into the Red.)

Out Of The Blue (2011) is the first studio album from the band since the late Nineties and also the first without original drummer Frank Frost and without vocalist John Mostert, and on this record the band is a four piece with song writing and vocal duties divided between veteran band members Albert Frost, Rob Nagel and Simon Orange. Tim Rankin, whose name appears on lots of albums recorded in the Cape, plays the drums.

The Blues Broers must soon be celebrating their 25th year in the South African music business and that is a significant milestone. This longevity is especially pleasing because this album is pretty much the best thing they've ever released.

The album title is probably taken from a recurring phrase in the Simon Orange song "Everybody Knows" but given the sense of humour and love of a pun evident in the songs of Rob Nagel and Simon Orange, the album title could also be a reference to the possibly unexpected return of the band to the concert stage and recording studio after a very long hiatus following on the death of Frank Frost in 1999. The blues is an influence that underpins the music yet a significant number of the songs (for example, all of Simon Orange's tunes) are not your average 12-bar blues.

As I understand the tale, the Blues Broers were reconvened because of the motivation of John Frick, founding guitarist, who rekindled his own love of the blues in about 2010 and flew out to South Africa from the Netherlands where he lives, to meet up with his old muckers and to persuade them to rake to the stage once more. John's brother Clayton, one of the mavens of the Cape Town blues scene of the early Nineties, came to South Africa from Australia and also played in the reunion shows, which were receive rapturously by the old faithful who were younger when the band was younger, and a whole bunch of new converts. After all, there is currently (as of 2014) a bit of a blues and blues rock revivalist boom in South Africa.

In these circumstances it was only right and proper that the band would write new songs and head to the studio to record them for posterity.

The first impression of the album is that the production values are high and that the band delivers the strongest and most consistent studio set of its career with finely tooled, blues influenced playing in a variety of styles, with highly enjoyable tunes.

Rob Nagel is the most prolific song writer, with 7 out of the 13 tracks either written or co-written by him, Simon Orange has 4 tunes and Albert Frost the rest.

Opening track "It's On Me", written and presumably suing, by Rob Nagel, is a marvellous, wonderful surprise, being a richly melodic cautionary tale about how life works, nestling amidst an organ driven groove reminiscent of mid-Sixties imitations of Al Kooper's organ on "Like A Rolling Stone." My first reaction was an immediate surge of anticipation. This song is an unequivocal statement of intent that the Blues Broers are about to give us something we ain't never heard from them before.

In quick succession we have an Albert Frost riff driven rock track "Mountains" (that seems to have a strong link to Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile (A Slight Return)", and is another cautionary tale; a poppy Simon Orange tune about coal trains (unfortunately probably the weakest song on the album); a lovelorn, jazz lounge blues sung by Frost and written by Nagel; and then yet another bluesy pop, jazz-lounge tune by Orange celebrating a musician called "Mr Fingers." Five tracks in and the band have laid out their wares: a pop sensibility with jazz chops and blues foundation.

On "Inside Woman Blues" Rob Nagel (with a sly reference to "Outside Woman Blues") gives us the first out-and-out, stomping, harp driven blues number on the album. This is pretty much industrial standard gutbucket, juke joint blues of a kind so few local so-called blues bands ever get right. Or even attempt. This song and performance illustrates how one can take a venerable example, update it and do something deliciously different with it. The song sounds at the same time as old as dust and very contemporary and that is the hallmark of a blues standard.

This rousing little gem is followed by the Nagel / Frost tune "Writing on the Wall" where a horn section and Simon Orange's organ support Frost's B B King and Lowell Fulson style leads. I can see where this song would make a fine tear-jerking set closer with extended soloing.

The next Frost tune is "Ladies Blues" where he proves that he can take as much from the Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar style as Dan Patlansky and do something far funkier with it without slavishly imitation, and at the same time write a hook so strong you could catch whales with it. The guitar solo is concise and to the point and there is yet another superb Simon Orange organ solo to lift the tune into that space beyond the stars, and a female backing chorus. Man, this is a truly wonderful piece of work.

"Everybody Knows" follows and this is a song that proves how good a songwriter Simon Orange is, able to blend a sublimely catchy tune with some intelligent, old-fashioned (in a good way) pop lyrics. It surely deserves a wider audience, as does most of the music on this album, than just the people who have this album. Out of the Blue is the most radio friendly record the Blues Broers have released, across a couple of radio audience demographics, such as rock, blues and easy listening pop.

Rob Nagel has a combo of two songs following each other, in "Stoned Cold Sober," a slyly humorous song celebrating the virtues of not drinking but rolling a joint instead, and "Bring It On," a blast of blues defiance. The first is another fine addition to the tradition of blues songs about drinking; the latter is an addition to the tradition of blues songs about giving life the finger.

The penultimate track of the 16-song set is another excellent Simon Orange pop tune, "Over My Head," and that is followed by Rob Nagel's instrumental "De Aar" which sees out the album in suitably atmospheric fashion. This is only the second song I know that name checks this northern Cape railway town, the other one being "Bar op De Aar," by Andre Le Toit (this was written and recorded before he became Koos Kombuis) and by all accounts De Aar is not the most attractive or bustling town in the country, especially not after the demise of the South African Railways empire. Nagel obviously thinks of De Aar as some Wild West frontier town because he gives his song a whimsical, wistful, haunting spaghetti Western treatment. The people of De Aar should be proud that someone has taken this much trouble to honour their dusty, moribund hometown in musical form.

So, once again the Blues Broers have played to their individual strengths and have delivered a record that is a highly entertaining, never boring mixture of good tunes and tough playing. This is a unique skill set in local music in general and in the blues scene in particular where very few of the local acts in this field have any clue of how to write an actual tune or how important it is to knew when to lay back and when to roar.

I've not seen the Blues Broers live since the reunion and reactivation shows with John and Clayton Frick and so I have idea whether any of these songs ever made it to the band's live repertoire. Most of them should. Obviously the audiences at their shows want to hear the blues classics, mostly because audiences really only appreciate songs they already know, but these songs are so strong they could rock the house anywhere. My only reservation would be that Simon Orange's songs, excellent as they are, do not squarely fit the blues band template and would be better suited to an audience in a concert setting and not so much at a festival or in a sweaty club where subtlety is hardly ever required.

I'm going to put it out there: The Blues Broers' Out of the Blue and Delta Blue's Inbluesstation are, in no particular order, the two best South African blues, R & B, soul and blues rock albums I've ever had the pleasure of owning.




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