Crimson House Blues is yet another band on the new blues scene in South Africa, with Dan Patlansky and Albert Frost, who are kind of the senior statesmen, and Natasha Meister, Black Cat Bones, Mean Black Mamba and others. To be pedantic about it, it is more of a revivalist blues rock scene than a purist approach to blues, with Jet Black Camaro finding space alongside the others yet being more of a good time rock and roll band than a blues group. We do have the Blues Broers, still toiling after all these years, and Boulevard Blues (also really just blues rockers) but nobody really wants to play blues as such. Everyone wants to boogie with intent and purvey a spirit and excitement that is always inherent in music derived from blues, rather than the faddish coolness and sameyness of most modern rock. You cannot beat a backbeat for getting the toes tapping and the hips shaking and for making one forget about intellectual appreciation of what's happening on stage.
Anyhow, Crimson House Blues have been going for a while and, looking at the band photographs on their website and in the album packaging, they aspire to being a mix between neo-hippie and old style beat, with the first's long hair and the latter's sense of cool dressing. Where there is a current trend for band members (apart from the serious hipsters) not to look doo different form their audiences, and in fact quite ordinary, the guys in Crimson House Blues definitely do not want to be mistaken for being anything else than bohemians. If they do have day jobs, it is probably not in law or commerce.
Debut album Smoke, Dust and Whiskey (2012) opens with “Going Down Slow,” the only blues standard on the album, and sets the scene for the listener to anticipate being entertained by some tasty, subtle blues. Riaan Smit’s emotional, hoarse voice fits the mood and tone of the song, the rhythm section pushes the song relentlessly forward and the lead guitar is fiery and fluid. Altogether a fine modern day interpretation of a venerable classic that’s been done to death.
Next up is “Silver Dollar,” an acoustic based song with electric lead and the first of the mythical barroom tales on the record, recording a tough life on the edge of society, pretty much the cinematic impression of what a blues landscape should look like. The song has a good tune, is not specifically a blues and is the first of a couple of tunes on the album that betrays the major influence of Tom Waits, both in the lyrical themes and in the timbre and inflections of Riaan Smit’s voice, that became really prominent on the second album. At times the resemblance is uncanny.
There is also not much more straightforward blues on offer. The mix leans towards a hillbilly string band with banjo and bottleneck guitar, strengthened by tough lead guitar and blue harp. The band seems to lean towards updating old-timey back country musical styles. “Halfway Whore House” brings us back to blues rock and yet another seedy tale of the underbelly of life. And then there is “Pickaxe Blues,” which is an unapologetic Tom Waits pastiche if I’ve ever heard one, based on the Swordfishtrombones or Raindogs template. The album plays out on the mostly acoustic piece “Over & Out,” an elegaic end to a set of songs that is organically tough, filled with brio and the confidence of a bunch of guys on top of their game and on a mission to spread their particular gospel.
Red Shack Rock (2013) is the second album and is more eclectic within the blues framework. The opening cut, “Call of the Wild,” is heavy blues circa 1968, second track, “Magic Potion,” features banjo and bottleneck guitar, “Aphrodite,” the third track, sounds like Asylum Records-era Tom Waits and the fourth cut is not only called “Jelly Roll” but it, and following track, “Take Away My Blues,” are the closest the album gets to electric blues. The music is always tough and gritty and with roots going to places way older than the guys in the band. Talk about old souls in young minds.
Obviously the influences are wide and diverse and equally obviously Tom Waits is one of them, not only in the vocal sound. In some of the songs, like “Aphrodite” and “Valley Below,” the entire composition sounds like pastiches of the Waits style. Hey, there is even an echo of Seasick Steve in “Alternative State of Mind” with a mumbled intro and tough slide guitar., the third big rock track on the album. In “Pindrop Circle” the band channels a Berlin cabaret circa 1926 with a fantasmagorical shaggy dog story and possibly the biggest tune on the album.
“Don’t Ask Why” and “The Jam” are the third last and penultimate tracks and the band really kicks out the roots rock blues jams here with a boisterous joyful noise with ribald guitar, banjo and harp and stomping rhythm section, before playing us home with the last atmospheric blues of the night on “Ashes On The Highway.” When the last note fades out you want to play the album again, just ot make sure your mind has not been playing tricks on you and that this collection of energetic, eclectic and engaging tunes is really as good as it seemed at the time.
Full marks to Crimson House Blues for not trying to replicate an anachronistic blues sound and succeeding with providing us with a diverse set, from heavy blues rock to blues to hillbilly to jazz, replete with hooks and tunes. The debut album made a powerful statement of intent and the second record brings it all back home with a confident swagger that says “it ain’t bragging if you’re doing it.”
The road trip test was an excursion to Builder's Warehouse. The album sounded very good on the car stereo system. The bottom heaviness of the sound and that almost extraordinary gruff, sandpapery voice that sounds as if it could be on the verge of self-destruction were emphasised to the point of an almost giddy joy. I dearly would have loved to drive very fast with this music roaring in my ears. Unfortunately it was inner city driving. There was some satisfaction when the woman in the car next to me at the traffic light glanced over with a weird little smile, hopefully of approval.
I understand that in 2014 Crimson House Blues toured and recorded in the USA and I would be very keen on getting my sweaty paws on the third record, if it actually comes from the country where the roots of their music are. If they were this good in South Africa, very far removed from the real life influences of the blues, imagine how truly excellent they must have to be once they’ve absorbed the influences at the source.