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Dear Redux

by Diane Coetzer / 30.07.2009

The contrast could not have been more acute. Two nights before I was smitten all over again by Dear Reader at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown I’d sat in Guy Butler Theatre at the 1820 Settler Monument watching a guitar tech hand Jesse Clegg a retuned guitar for the umpteenth time.

Now I happen to think that Clegg junior has something going on with his melodic rock songs but that was hard to remember when watching him sheepishly intro his band of (excellent) session musicians and grab hold of guitar thrust towards him by the tech, over and over and bloody over again. The message was clear: with a papa like Johnny and a management team with bigtime connections, young Clegg is not going to be allowed the distractions of working small clubs, hauling his own gear and letting his natural talent grow … well, naturally.

That coddling an artist from the start is no good thing was brought into sharp focus when I sat in a half-empty Cuervo Music Room, on what was really an uncomfortable lecture hall chair, watching Dear Reader play just about every song off their astonishing new album, ‘Replace Why With Funny’.

Dressed in a suitably whimsical striped affair, the group’s frontwoman Cherilyn MacNeil moved between sitting at her keyboard and standing upfront with her guitar, not a roadie or tech in sight. In fact the whole band was often in motion: Darryl Torr (co-founder with MacNeil of the original Harris Tweed and someone who fits the description technical whizz well) worked his bass, keys and loop station and even Michael Wright, the drummer “with the voice of a choirboy” (MacNeil’s words), came forward to sing and ping a few keys. Now the latter sounds fairly commonplace until you realise that Torr is not just twiddling a few knobs at his loop station but actually recording, on the spot, McNeil’s voice for vocal layering on songs like ‘Way of the World’ and Wright’s um-pa-pas on ‘The Same’ for the same purpose.

Dear Reader

Before I saw the Grahamstown gig, I’d wondered how Dear Reader would replicate live the musical quirks and ticks created in studio by Torr and MacNeil along with producer, Menomena’s Brent Knopf. But Torr’s skillful use of the loop station delivered a listening experience that is close to the album but still with all the warmth and small messiness that make a great live show.

It’s obvious that Dear Reader has benefited from the slate of live gigs they’ve played in Europe off the back of City Slang releasing ‘Replace Why With Funny’ overseas. The label comes with bigtime credibility and already the band is picking up glowing reviews, including from Uncut’s Nigel Williamson who described the album as a “sparkling debut” and gave it four stars – which sortof makes forgivable the opening blurb (I’m guessing written by a sub ‘cause the astute Williamson knows better) that sums the album up by calling it a “Startlingly assured debut from (white) South African duo”. Yes outsiders! It’s true! Just like black folk can dance so too can white South Africans make proper music.

These days you’re more likely to find Dear Reader playing at places like the Secret Garden Party (in, well a secret garden somewhere in the UK) or the Berlin Festival than anywhere here, judging by the pretty universally rapturous response ‘Replace Why With Funny’ is getting outside South Africa. Which takes us back to the half-full Cuervo Music Room where, aside from a few yapping girls, the audience was, like me, smitten as the band ran through songs like ‘Bend’. I first heard the song last year in Grahamstown and knew then that the then-Harris Tweed was destined for an indie takeover beyond these borders, even if the fabric folk would ultimately force a name turnaround.

I’ve warmed to Dear Reader, the name, but loved instantly ‘Replace Why With Funny’, with its swirling casino-like keys (on ‘Out Out Out’ which MacNeil endearingly reveals was inspired by her mum’s admonishment to the family’s pet dogs who’d strayed into the house), and lovelorn lyrics that never, ever stray into clichés – like on the modern folk ‘Release Me’ or the terrific ‘Never Goes’ that deploys so artfully the use of a repeated line (in this case the words “I’m alone”). If a standout is demanded, I’d select ‘Great White Bear’, a song that reveals MacNeil’s ability to take a small concept – that of never being able to see polar bears in the dark, such is their insulation – and turn it into a movie-like tale about a boy and girl propelled by love to run away. In the cold Cuervo Room it was a sublime treat to see McNeil deliver the lines “run, run, run/there’s a bullet in your back” with an intensity that’s utterly real.

Unlike Jesse Clegg – whose talent runs the risk of being hampered by too much, too soon, and a stupid degree of control – Dear Reader are at the start of an arc that looks likely to carry them into the same space as Laura Viers or Sufjan Stevens, both cited on their MySpace site as influences. It’s a gratifying thing to watch unfold.

Photos: Marcus Maschwitz

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