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 clichéd 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.

No comments: