Sunday, January 15, 2017

Gerald Clark keeps the blues alive.


Not the simplest, or most descriptive, of titles for a record of blues and soul tinged tunes that is the best blues album of this year and the best blues album by any South African musician since the demise of Delta Blue.

Gerald Clark was once the lead singer of Delta Blue who reached the apex of their recording career with Inbluesstation and Heaven, to my mind two of the best blues-rock-soul albums ever released in South Africa. Inbluesstation counts among the best South African records released so far in this 21st century.

Clark has followed a solo career for some years now, mostly as a bluesman, with at least one album of Afrikaans music as well.

Afroboer sounds like an extension of the Inbluesstation style of blues, soul and rock, albeit with a lighter touch, far less of the hoarse soulful voice Clark had back then and more expansive arrangements for the band. Clark’s vocal tone, although still impassioned, is now so light and almost airy that one might think he has given up smoking and drinking.

Three of the tunes, “Hesitate’, “Easy Baby” and “Let Me Tell You”, are reworked versions of Delta Blue releases and “Fire” features (presumably) isiXhosa vocals.

The basic approach is tough blues-soul-rock with punchy riffs and loping rhythms, piano and organ, blues harp, sharp lead guitar and emotional vocals with a slight pop edge. The musicians have been around this style of music for long enough know exactly when to ratchet up the raunch a couple of notches or when to lay back. The tunes are solid and Clark has made an art of the modern blues lyric that incorporates clich├ęd tropes yet always has a subtle new twist.  The most overt example of Clark’s methodology is in the careful melding of his lyrics in “Easy Baby” with parts of Willie Dixon’s classic “I Just Want To Make Love To You,” to the extent that I wonder whether Clark will have to pay some royalties to Dixon’s estate.

Ballistic Blues have been a kind of natural successor to Delta Blue and their vocalist has copped the original Clark sound and perhaps Clark now wants to distinguish himself from that approach by singing with this affective lightness of tone. His crack band supports his performances with the subtlety and nous one has come to expect from the best of local musicians in this genre. Clark’s backing musicians are less blustery and forceful than the likes of Black Cat Bone or Jet Black Camaro, who emphasise the sheer rock and roll exhilaration of the same roots rather than the deep blues and heartfelt soul viewpoint of Clark.

The four opening tracks, “Hesitate”, “Jesus”, “Guilty” and “Fire”, set out the stall of the wares on display over the balance of the record. It is a fulsome thrill to hear this kind of accomplished, loose yet never sloppy accomplished playing in a genre that I love and is so abused by musicians who know the licks but have little or no feel. It is trite that blues is about feel and not technique and too many currently popular blues rock musicians are technicians first, foremost and only.

“Lights Across the Bay” slows down the frenetic opening pace with a plea of love with an airy musical backing, and is then followed by the barnstorming “How I Met The Golden Goose” that sounds like an old school big band swing jump blues with ominous organ, trumpet and some razor sharp slide guitar. No wonder this exhilarating tune is kind of the title track.

On the other hand, “Small Town Fashion Guru” is pretty much hard rock, featuring Henry Steele, once lead guitarist for Delta Blue.

“Summer Shoes” is jumping party blues. “All I Need Is Your Love” and “Don’t Look Back” amped up the soul grooves.

“The Landlord Blues” is the most traditional, overt, slow blues on the album, a complaint about the haves who disdain the have nots.

The final cut, “Sitting in the Sun,” is a light-hearted, sprightly song of longing (a duet with Luna Paige) that is nonetheless quite upbeat and an excellent send off.

I cannot overemphasise how much I love this record. Compared to the recent output of Dan Patlansky (Introvertigo) and Albert Frost (The Wake Up), both of whom made their name as blues guys and who now venture further into their own take on rock, Clark seems quite old-fashioned but the quality of the songs on this album and of the musicians who play them is on par with the best of the other two guys, and it there is no doubt but that Gerald Clark is a far superior vocalist.

Afroboer . appeals on an emotional, visceral level and it is a record I will be able listen to far more often, over the next several years, with generally greater enjoyment than either The Wake Up or Introvertigo.

Dan Patlansky is not so introverted


Introvertigo is another giant step in Patlansky’s journey away from blues and towards blues-inflected hard rock. This old-fashioned approach of 10-songs-in-36-minutes album is the follow up to the excellent Dear Silence Thieves (2014). The riffs (from the opening cut “Run” onwards) are huge, the sound powerful and the rocking hard. The Stevie Ray Vaughanisms are almost undetectable (“Poor Old John” has the closest remnants) and there seems to be much more of a Jimi Hendrix thing going on, particularly on “Bet On Me” with an intro that sounds like a repurposed version of the intro to “Little Wing.” The tasty electronic organ and big chorus make it an affective, memorable tune.

“Loosen up the Grip” is the big, soaring, emotive ballad and “Still Wanna Be Your Mean” is the big slow blues. These two tracks alone are more than enough evidence of Patlansky’s maturity as songwriter who now knows that tunes and hooks are important, not merely arrangements and virtuoso guitar solos.

“Heartbeat” opens with a “whoo hoo” hook that is copied from somewhere else (but that I cannot quire recall now) and has an intriguing, atypical rhythmic opening before settling into the big rock riff.

The two least effective tunes are “Sonova Faith” and “Western Decay,” coincidentally the most philosophical musings on the record, which rely on their arrangements and the playing of the musicians to carry them. This is also the case with “Queen Puree”, which has some indelible guitaring without which the song would be pointless sludge.

On album at least, Patlansky is no longer overtly a bluesman.  Either he has followed the path of progression, like that of the blues bands of the late Sixties blues boom who went from purism to hard rock or heavy metal, or he has realised that blues rock is a more commercial prospect than straight-ahead blues.  The good news, though, is that he has found song writing form and has learnt to be concise in his arrangements and playing, and has learnt about hooks that make the songs memorable. Dear Silence Thieves and Introvertigo represent a purple patch of enjoyable creativity after the rather dire 20 Stones and Wooden Thoughts.

Dan Patlansky has upped his game and if he can maintain this level, greatness awaits.  For far too long he has shone as master guitarist with the emphasis on technique over content; over his two most recent albums he has shown us that he can make consistently good records that celebrate the strength of the material and do not rely on his instrumental prowess only.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Petit Cheval once roared like lions.


The mid-Eighties rock scene in South Africa was quite small, or seemed to be. In Cape Town, at least, one could count the gigging bands on the fingers of your two hands. The bands with record deals were in a significant minority. I have no idea how many bands operated in Johannesburg and Durban at the time and who never released anything.  Record contracts were not easy to come by and the Indie DIY spirit, and possibilities, of today’s bands did not exist. Hardly anyone put out their own records. Even the alternative bands relied on small labels like Mountain Records or Shifty Records.

Petit Cheval, from Johannesburg, did have a record deal and had a national presence for the relatively brief period of their existence. I do not know how many times they played Cape Town in the period 1985 to 1987 but I must have attended just about every gig Petit Cheval played here, mostly because I tried to go to every rock gig I could possibly get to.

Petit Cheval played at Indaba (top end of Wale Street) and the Brass Bell (Kalk Bay) and drew big crowds because they’d had some radio hits. In those days, the most ambitious Johannesburg bands, whether they’d released any records or not, made a habit of coming down to Cape Town for some summer gigs over the holiday season.

My take on Petit Cheval, from the name and the music, was that these guys were our local answer to Duran Duran and Spandau ballet, and the other New Romantic groups of the time. On the radio the music was disco pop, with solid tunes and epic choruses, and the band members were kitted out in full mid-Eighties finery, outrageous feather cut mullets and some make up. At least they were thin and good-looking and apparently did not mind posing as poncey Mid-Eighties pop stars.

On stage the band was a lot louder end had a much tougher rock sound than the records had suggested. The smooth sheen of the record production was typical of the times and obviously aimed at commercial success and radio play. However, when the band played live they were rougher and edgier, putting on a bit of a show and sounded like a proper rock band.

Craig Else was the blond lead guitarist who played a blinder yet kinda looked like the kind of guy who’d be more interested in posing than making music. He always wore this odd floppy leather hat that was part macho and part ridiculous. Jonathan Selby’s party trick was dancing himself out of his big white shirt.  On the first occasion, I saw it, it seemed like a natural consequence of his wild gyrations but because it happened every time, I realized that it was his schtick, to end up with a sweaty, white, hairless bare chest.

At the time, I might have known the names of all the band members but paid little attention to anybody else but Selby and Else. Today I‘ve learnt that the brilliant Danny de Wet, later of The Electric Petals and Wonderboom, drummed for Petit Cheval. I have a indulgent fondness for his solo album Hypocrites of the World Unite, a quirky, wonderful set of songs with the pop smarts that have informed the best songs of the bands he’s drummed for.

I have to confess that I never bought either of the two albums Petit Cheval released during their lifetime. On the one hand, it was not music I particularly cared for (and at the time I did not go out of my way to buy South African rock albums) and, on the other hand, I just never saw the records in my local record store, not even as reduced price bargains. The radio singles were enjoyable and the live performances were energetic and satisfying enough without making it an imperative for me to want to buy the albums.

In June 2015, I acquired the Young Lions compilation, dating from 1995, compiled by Benjy Mudie, who later found the RetroFresh label specializing in the re-release of so many legendary South African rock albums that had been languishing in obscurity and were unavailable on CD until he stepped up. Young Lions is a precursor to the RetroFresh label project and I would not be surprised if RetroFresh has by now also re-released the original Petit Cheval albums. As it is, this selection could well be pretty much everything of value the band ever released.

When I listen to the tracks today I am reminded of the reasons why I did not buy the records then. I was in my mid- to late Twenties and this type of high-pomp pop did not appeal to me at all. When the band played live, the sound was much tougher, exciting and therefore more appealing.  The tunes I remember are “Once In A Lifetime,” “Magical Touch,” and “It Was The Wind.” Presumably most of the other tunes on this compilation album were also part of the live set but were not as memorable.

The CD insert has a biography of the band and some photographs, and it is quite amusing at this remove to see a bunch of young guys in complete, utterly dated, ‘80’s finery, feather-cut mullets included. Management and publicity must have styled the guys to within an inch of their lives. Today this contrivance just makes the lads look ridiculous. Something for the grand children to snigger at. Even the Glam rock ‘70s has survived better than ‘80s style’ most of the bands just look ridiculous today.

I guess Petit Cheval would not count as one of the major South African bands of the Eighties but they were very much part of the South African musical fabric of that era, had some success and were entertaining enough to merit some kudos for achieving what they had achieved. The few hit singles still have resonance and would not be out of place in any ‘80s compilation.