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Identity Crisis: Where Llamas Go to Die

by Max Barashenkov, images by Danielle Clough / 09.11.2010

Fan X: Zula Bar is overflowing tonight, fans have gathered to witness the unveiling of Captain Stu’s new EP, a healthy dose of fun is about to be shot up our veins. The video for the single, “The Day”, is an amazing blend of guerilla production and low-key sunny vibes.

Critic Y: Too many people to be able to stand in one place for longer than five minutes, I wish they would have done this in a better suited venue, but I guess, things always go down better on home turf. For a band that has been balancing on the edge for the past two years, it must be a relief to still have the drawing power to pack out a gig. In the stifling Cape Town music scene, where bands disappear with the regularity of seasonal change, it is no small feat. Tonight Captain Stu prove that they have a substantial, loyal base, how sustainable it is, is another question.

Captain Stu

Doctor Z: Hardly a person here above the age of twenty one, except for those of us that have been putting ourselves through the evolution of Stu since the beginning. We are, sadly, treated to pretty much the same formula of tentative experimentation, tight performance and struggle for identity. Why the fuck is their video playing on repeat the whole night? Sure, it’s good, but this smells strongly of megalomania, or stupidity. What a way to kill visual content right at the launch, masterful. Drink two, engage.

Fan X: The Nomadic Orchestra kick the night off with a set of infectious Balkan rhythms and brass arrangements. The floor instantly turns into a mass of Pogoing kids, every face painted with a wide grin, every limb jerking in time with the tuba-driven beats. This is what every party should be like – no tedious drinking warm-up, straight into the dancing, without pretence, without concern of looking silly. This band will be huge on the emerging Balkan-dance scene.

Critic Y: A certain groove has been established, and established in the most polished and professional manner. Nomadic Orchestra deliver what is expected of them – an off-beat, in the grander scheme of the Cape Town music scene, party soundtrack that lures with exoticised Balkan flavour and keeps you in the spinning wheel through the solid adherence to the post-gypsy equation. The dueling saxophones provide the manic, jagged melody, layered over the spectacular bass-foundation spat out by the tuba. Any fan of 40s/50s French chanson, and the ensuing Soviet bard movement of the 60s, would appreciate the off-hand, purposefully messy guitar work. The only real criticism that can be leveled at them is the repetitive nature of their songs, which gets rather tiresome after the fifth track.

The Nomadic Orchestra

Doctor Z: This reminds me of the blaze swagger of a Russian immigrant in Paris of the 1930s, about to expel all traces of the motherland in the nearest side-alley. The roots of this gypsy circus lie in the mass Eastern European exodus before communism, its current, glamourized and commercialized appeal in the post-90s appropriation and assimilation of everything Slav by the West. By Stalin, if this is meant to be a simulation of a Balkan wedding celebration, then where is the vodka, where is the marinated herring, where is the enigmatic frontman that keeps things fresh amid barely-distinguishable hooks? Do they not hear the roar of the crowd when they shout mere monosyllabic utterances off stage? Do they not see how much more imaginative, less boring, their music would be with the addition of vocals? Three beers down during their set to escape the joyous monotony.

Fan X: While Nomadic Orchestra draw applause from all, it is clear, from the way the crowd seems to double when the headliners take the stage, that tonight is all about Captain Stu. Familiar faces on the dancefloor, super-charged for a set of gloriously danceable ska-pop. Captain Stu showcase their new material in the same flawless fashion as they do their older tracks, the band working as a single unit, projecting good vibes with the intensity of a hippie-generator. The Free Music EP is an appropriate addition to the band’s constantly maturing repertoire, filled with their trademark vocal/brass grooves and interesting songwriting choices. The set is a triumph, the band knowing exactly when to kick it up a notch to send the kids even further into dance delirium.

Captain Stu

Critic Y: While the performance of Captain Stu cannot be faulted, a question of identity and survival arises. They have finally recovered from the loss of lead singer Nick Key, having adjusted their old material to the unconscious texture of James Klopper’s voice and tailored the new tracks to play to his strengths. Yet, Free Music suffers from musical uncertainty, ground somewhere between commercial pop-rock, semi-experimental ambitions fueled more by the proficiency of the musicians than by any new kind of direction and relaxed ska-reggae, akin to the post-ragga scene of, once again, Eastern European bands such as Fast Food Orchestra. The real problem is that, apart from the hardcore fans, their music, despite being ultra-accessible, does not have a distinct enough of a face for new admirers to affiliate with. It is easy when you are an indie band, then you just wear skinnys and act cool and, lo and behold, you have an audience. Same goes for metal, punk or electro outfits – the defined genre allows for a certain relationship to be built. But who does this music appeal to? Those of us that like having fun (‘fun’ being the word that is most stressed in their press-release)? That is a too broad of a category to have any sustainable crowd-pull. Captain Stu seem to be a band caught in a permanent crisis of identity, enjoying moderate success but never really making it, and, after more than seven years together, one can only wonder how long they will be able to continue for. Hopefully they will find a more solid footing, build on the existing and move forward.

Doctor Z: You can’t praise a car for driving on four wheels. Neither can you praise Stu for putting out a rather average EP, the most noteworthy aspect of which is the fact that it is free. Kudos to them for embracing the new age of music distribution, but it is probably too little, too late. They’ve been flirting with other genres for so long now that the musical content of the record fails to excite anyone who has seen Stu more than three times. The fast vocal delivery, while working well to keep the general upbeat feel, has been done and redone by almost everyone, to the point where it became a cliché. If you listen to the lyrics on the Free Music tracks – well it appears that the band themselves are writing out their own death. The single, The Day, is almost an obituary to the ideals that once drove the band, the opener, Tempo, speaks directly to their crisis of identity. On the surface, the EP is all about good vibes, but dig deeper and it’s filled with despair. Could this be their dying howl? Could Free Music be where the Llamas go to die?

Captain Stu

Captain Stu

Captain Stu

*All images © Danielle Clough.

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