Alone in the Darkby Andy Davis, images JR Onyangunga / 12.04.2011
Jay Bones blows into town like a sweaty tornado of white manflesh. It’s late at night by the time the dude arrives at &Union and we’re already a few beers down. His Ben Sherman shirt is throwing some beautiful armpit Rorschachs as he humps the bass amp he’s just collected from the Mercury. It’s fast and loose, he’s working to a deadline, the gig is late, but there’s an obvious journeyman comfort to the hustle. Just another gig in another city. Jay Bones confident in the fact that when he plugs in that guitar, and his Bloody Agents start to play, the wait will have been worth it.
Things have changed for Rambling Bones. What started as a little Fuzigish side project has become the main event with the release of their critically acclaimed debut album Watching and Waiting. Just as the big time beckoned, co-conspirator and chief beatman, Jay’s rusty sidecrack Kevin S. Flee flew North. Now Kevin’s a big tattooed hick of a man, with a wry sense of humour and the rhythm centre of an ageing pantsula. On bongos and occasionally the triangle, he was always the soothing balm to Bones’ rash, and he bought a sophisticated je ne sais quoi to the act, like on that song about being a serial killer. At times Jay and Kevin’s incarnation of Rambling Bones was more a comedy act that played some catchy songs in between the hilarious diatribes. Very good songs mind. A gifted musician in his own right, as the front-man for Southern Blues fornicators the Death Valley Blues Band, and one of the central noise merchants in Submachine, Kevin eventually succumbed to the South African musician’s HIV – money trouble – some call it the “cultural slow puncture”, and packed it in to rock a computer keyboard in pursuit of love and marriage in London, invariably leaving Bones to Ramble.
But Jay’s tenacious. He pulled together a new line up, drafting in Eric Charles Wright on the bass and backing vocals and a tall dark stranger in the form of Captain Danger on drums and called them his “Bloody Agents” and so Rambling Bones was reinvented as a three piece. They released a demo called Live with Rusty from the Wendy House building up towards the release of the self-titled album Rambling Bones and his Bloody Agents.
They call themselves South African folk misfit country dabblers, and that’s not far off, the music invokes influences from Tom Waits to the Violent Femmes to Steve Earle with liberal swabs of the Clash and Bad Religion and maybe even a little bit of Willy Mason, while we’re throwing names. They used to call it acoustic-core, but really that description belies a strong melodic undertone to all their songs. In fact, Jay Bones has to be the most underrated South African songwriter. His sense of timing and melody are exceptional. It’s just that his delivery is freakish. He’s an old skool punk. He wears torn jeans cut off above the ankles and rocks more hair on his lambchops than’ll grow on top of his head. He’s not a pop star, and bless him, will never be one. But these songs in the hands of effete South African poser pop bands like the Parlotones, Prime Circle and Crash Car Burn would revolutionise their sound, lend them some credibility and impart a fair dose of “originality” (I know, from covers) on their production. Seriously, Jay Bones could be the South African Stock Aitken Waterman… Danny K should be paying him royalties… but I digress.
Finally Jay steps to mic and unleashes their first song, a two-step tirade called “It All Comes Down To This”. It’s the obvious place to start, a fast rangy number that brings everyone into the room.
“There’s a lot that you can / there’s a lot that can be done / you spit and you curse / you moan and you hiss / it all comes down to this.”
Then Captain Danger comes in smashing that kettle drum like a marching band. All war and drum majorettes. Eric Charles locks it in with the big warm basslines, while Jay steps in and out with the lyrics, slowing it down, building it up, until the whole thing crescendos and causes much sloshing of that expensive beer on the tiled floor as people scramble to applaud.
“When I’m With You” is a fun upbeat, trademark Jay Bones, in a different incarnation this could be a classic Fuzigish punk love song, but it’s dressed up all acoustic and minimal here. “When I’m with you I’m feeling better / when I’m with you I quote Mandela.”
“Sail Away” is the album’s obvious first single. A folky ode of positive thought inspired by ocean metaphors, invoking images of pirates and crusty beards all swelling anthemically on the chorus. It’s like a melodic folk punk mash up in the galley of the Dromedaris. “Heave ho, heave ho”.
“Soon” is the album’s highlight. A soft, understated track. Jay’s fingers teasing out a melancholic, folky melody on the guitar, Captain Danger just brushing that kettle drum to keep time while Eric Charles fills in some of the spaces on the bass. It’s a sound reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions album of old American folk songs, only sung by Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters.
“Spiders creeping in the corners of your eyes / Cobwebs linger in your breath / Every shadow is a suspect / Every creak is a secret about you / You should know better than this / You should know better than this / You should know better / Hold on / Hold on / Hold on / The morning’s coming soon.”
And when Captain Danger and Eric Charles come in with the a capella backing bass harmony, bom-be-bom bom-be-bom it just kills me. This song is a masterpiece.
Finally they bring it to a climax with the plaintiff riffs of “No Fun At All”, which is really a song about Jay growing up, having kids and becoming a drag on the hard living punk rockers he makes music with. “We used to hang out / We used to have laughs / Fooling around / But now you’re no fun at all / We were a team / you were my partner in crime / But now you’re no fun at all.” it’s a timeous reminder of what this whole journeyman music scene is all about. It’s plaintiff and contemplative, with a melancholic riff that makes you smile with downturned lips. Happy with a sad face. To make ends meet, Jay, the stand-out South African songwriter of his generation supplements that meagre musician’s income working days as a web developer… and that, my friends, is no fun at all.
And just for kicks check the Rambling Bones Mahala Surf Co. colab below:
*All images © JR Onyangunga.