Monday, January 09, 2017

The Black Cat Bones rattle them bones.

Silverton Swamp Songs, The Long Ride and Beatipiller

The Black Cat Bones have been described as South Africa’s premier blues rock group and live attraction and they are currently 3 albums into their career: Silverton Swamp Songs (2009), The Long Ride and Beatipiller (2013.) On this journey, they’ve evolved from being a blues influenced rock group to a proper blues rock band, reflecting several influences of which blues is now but a small portion. This development is like what happened to so many British blues bands in the late ‘60s who went from purist blues to hard rock in only a few easy steps towards commercial success.

On Silverton Swamp Songs, the boys (four Afrikaans guys from, probably Silverton, in Pretoria) are at their most tentative as is to be expected with a debut. They obviously like blues but aren’t purist about it and want to rock out too. The band does a version of “Got My Mojo Working” and even an Afrikaans tune, written by Valiant Swart, something they did not repeat on the two subsequent albums. The debut album was produced and engineered by Pretoria hard rock legend Lani van der Walt.

Opening track of Silverton Swamp Songs, “The Greatest Show On Earth,” sets out the wares: raw-throated gospel/soul vocals, with big tunes, and a solid rocking band with a great deal of blues swing to it. I guess this is the definition of Southern Rock, and this is pretty much what the Black Cat Bones do here although it is a completely different take on the genre. The band does not sound like, for example, the originators of the style like Allman Brothers Band or Lynyrd Skynyrd. The songs do not rely on extended guitar solos or jazzy interludes and the tunes are not particularly memorable., with none of the catchy hooks or hummable choruses of Southern Rock. One could call this approach the contemporary take of young South African guys who love the old stuff and influences and have no intention of replicating them. Having said that, “Die Donker Kom Jou Haal” features some tearing guitar.  Apart from the track called “Mojo” only “Blues Before the Rain” is an overt blues with some harp and more elevating lead guitar.

“Vendetta (Take It Like A Man” starts out as a sprightly, jumping little tune and eventually turns into a darker, horn driven thing. It is followed by “When the Words Are Spoken,” a faster song, based on a well-known blues figure, that lightens the mood somewhat before the band goes into the final, slow, acoustic, reflective tune, “100 Soldiers” to end the album on bit of a downer, albeit with a message against war.

All in all, Silverton Swamp Songs is not an extraordinary, genre-defining, debut album but it is good listening. File alongside Crimson House Blues’ debut album.

The Long Ride continues where Silverton Swamp Songs left off and beefs up the sound and the gospelised vocals to bring us a more mature sounding band, probably after some roadwork and the self-confidence of a studio savvy band with road-tested new material. The approach is still a tad tentative though. the Black Cat Bones are careful to maintain some bounds and some reserve.  The band wrote all the songs except for a medley of “Ball & Chain” and “That Same Thing,” both taken at the same deliberate pace that somehow sucks the bedrock groove of the original versions from the performance.

By the release of Beatipiller the band had jettisoned the overt blues plumage and concentrates on riff-heavy hard rock. By now the playing is extremely tight and energetic to the max.  Solid tunes are in short supply and the band must rely on the riffs and shouty, yet soulful, vocals, to carry the songs. The overall impression is that the band has matured into its own style, perfected its instrumental abilities and have struck on a purple patch of deft arrangements and even some subtlety that make for engaging tunes while one listens to the album even if not much of it sticks for very long. The final impression is of a satisfying listening experience that makes one want to check them out when they play live with the hope that they will jam a bit and loosen up the groove.

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