Saturday, September 13, 2014

Gerald Clark pours Black Water

(I wrote this, or at least most of it except for the track by track analysis, way back, shortly after I bought album, but never got around to publishing it on my blog due to technical difficulties with accessing the blog. Hence the lack of contemporaneity.)

Gerald Clark, once the vocalist for Delta Blue and now a solo artist, is one of the treasures of South African music. He has a genuinely soulful voice, writes lyrics that sound old even when they are brand new and makes music that never fails to thrill.  His chosen field is blues and though he does not walk a lonely road along this path, he does not have many peers in this country.

He has released an Afrikaans album called Sweepslag en there is a virtual album as MP3 tracks on the Rhythm Records online store website. I’ve not bought any of these songs.

Late in 2011 I looked at Clark's website and contacted his manager to enquire whether Clark had released any CDs and was told that none was available but that I could have a copy of a DVD of a show recorded at a West Coast location earlier in 2011. I duly acquired the DVD called “Concert on the Coast.”

“Concert on the Coast” is a multi-disc package with the DVD of the live gig plus a CD with the audio recording.

In November 2012 I popped into The African Music Store and found Black Water, a proper studio album with a quite elegant cardboard sleeve with poster.

The two sets are companion pieces as they have a number of songs in common. Presumably Gerald Clark was road testing his songs before recording them in a studio setting.

At the live gig Clark is backed by Henry Steel, his old mucker from Delta Blue, bassist-to-the-stars Schalk Joubert, and drummer Tim Rankin. A solid, tight, tasteful combo that respects the blues and knows how to make simplicity powerful.

Clark plays a lot of acoustic guitar, one tune with a Telecaster and a handful of tunes on a Gibson 335, which allegedly was made in the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo and is wholly authentic old school, then.

The packaging contains no detail on authorship of the tunes. Clark performs a bunch of blues and R & B standards such as “Hallelujah, I love Her So”, “Stand By Me“, “Come On In My Kitchen”, “Stranger Blues” and “It's Alright”, as well as a bunch of his own compositions, including the anomaly that is “Elandsbaai”, the only Afrikaans song in the set and  the only non-blues.

The performances are energetic and powerful and swing easy. There is no grandstanding from any one and the musicians give the tunes room to move. I guess it is not authentic given that we are listening to a group of |South Africans and because Clark, to my mind, fits better as a soul singer, or a R & B artist in the vein of Ray Charles or Bobby 'Blue” Bland than as some Mississippi Delta bluesman.

The easy swagger of this live is a far cry from the rather stilted performances on the Delta Blue debut album, recorded live in Stellenbosch, where the musicians were not yet fully acclimatised to the blues and were   acting it out instead of feeling it. In the blues game you cannot beat time and experience as the vital ingredients for producing music that lives and breathes, and truly satisfies.

The Black Water album is a different proposition altogether. The album packaging contains no background information whatsoever and I do not know when or where it was recorded or who plays on it. Clark wrote all but three of the songs.

 The 2 opening cuts, “It Ain't You” and “Black Water” perhaps not so coincidentally are also the first 2 songs performed at the live gig. “Ain't going to Heaven” is a new version of one of the standout songs on Heaven, so far the last Delta Blue album.

For my money Delta Blue may be the most underrated band in South Africa. The run of 3 albums from Turn through Inbluestation to Heaven represent a pinnacle of blues and soul inflected rock from this country, and would fit proudly alongside similar music on record shelves all over the world. 

Well, whatever crack band Clark put together to back him on Black Water acquit themselves magnificently. This is an insanely great soul-blues album that not only nods the head to tradition but is also fiercely contemporary. Clark has one of the best voices in the country and writes the best lyrics in the blues and soul context, that sound as if they were written decades ago yet do not slavishly imitate the standards. Clark follows the folk blues tradition of taking well-worn phrases and concerns and making them his own in the fashion of, for example John Lee Hooker.

The band plays tough when required, bluesy, soulful and with finesse, like a countrysoulblues band with a unique approach to the music. Delta Blue did not much sound like anybody else, once they got past the debut album, and neither does Gerald Clark. Sometimes this kind of individualism is more of impedance in the quest for commercial acceptance and the hope of making a living in music. In Clark’s case the independence of thought and approach makes him a star, albeit not perhaps of mega proportions, but I can see him developing a following akin to the devoted following of one Van Morrison, another guy who has always followed his own path and refused to pander.

“I Ain’t You” is a mellow a dn soulful country blues roots type thing and “Black Water” is a swamp boogie with tasty bottelmeck slide guitar  and a driving electric guitar solo. With these two tunes Gerlad Clark sets out his stall. The vocals are going to be soulful and the music is going to be  tough, stripped to the bone. The opening cuts are followed by the over-amped shuffle blues of “Giving Up On Love” that sounds like something you’d hear at some juke joint back in the woods, played by guys who have labouring day jobs and little finesse when it comes to their music.

“Ain’t Going To Heaven” is done as an acoustic string band knees up. It is a brilliant song, both in the age-old, insant classic lyrics and the instantly memorable tunes.  “Breaking Down” is an acoustic soul tune about love lost badly and “Poor Man Blues” in driven by jazzy piano and swinging rhythm section, like ‘30s urban blues, by Big Bil Broonzy or Sonny Boy Williamnson I (without the harp)  on the Bluebird label. After this quiet, introspective interlude “Let Me Tell You” strides swageringly into view with a rumination on thte blues and with a vigorous, to-the–point  guitar solo that yet again illustrates how oftne less is more in the blues and how Calrk’s generally understated band supports him with easy authority.

“Stranger Blues” by name at least, is a venerable classic, and I know version by Elmore James and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Clark’s rake on the song seems to be influenced by the Terry and McGhee version, particularly because it is an acoustic treatment, though again minus blues harp.  Clark also does not quite sing the tune I  know. Never mind, it is good.

“House of the Rising Sun” is done as a sprightly, almost jolly, Cajun string band jig. It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.   It is a diffident stroke of genius to reimagine one of the best known blues songs as a joyful noise in contrast  to the very tragic tale the lyrics tell.

“Feel So Good Can’t Keep From Crying” sounds like a medley of the well-known Junior Parker song and a gospel blues classic, best known to me in a version by The Blues Project, but it is not that.  Clark simply tells us that he feels very good though he can’t keep from crying. Hopefully he’s talking about tears of happiness. It is another up-tempo scoustic band tune followed by the  brief, solo bottleneck guitar blues of “Late Night Blues.”

The two final tracks are “Marry Me,” which is a straightforward energetic,  affecting  soul pop invitation to the love of Clark’s life and “As The Crow Flies” (a Tony Joe White tune), with which the band kicks out the jams one more time on a stomping blues rocker that ends the set in fine style.

There is a lot of mutton dressed as lamb on the South African blues and blues rock scene at the moment and often technical proficiency is hailed  as the mark of brilliance and excellence. Gerald Clark is probsbly as good as any mucician in the country and has been paying dues for a long time, from the very humble beginnings of the first Delta Blue album to the work of genius that is Inbluestation and now this gem of an album.  Clark does what the best creative musicians, or artists in general do, and that is to take the myriad influences that inform his musical education and to remake and remodel them into something new and different yet still can sound traditional and as old as the mountains 

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