Novelties and Party Tricksby Andrei Van Wyk / Images by Hanro Havenga / 11.10.2011
Sweat oozes from the windows of the dubstep party next door as the bright light illuminates the wet faces of the kids dancing outside while trying to grab a smoke. The inside of Town Hall, Newtown, Jozi, is hot in temperature but cold in spirit. The corners are crammed with people too shy to dance to the hi-fi sounds of Two Door Cinema Club and Foster the People. Others just stand awkwardly next to the toilets waiting for their girlfriend while frustrated adults, pushing the upper age limit, struggle to get along with the young, half-drunk bartender.
Shortstraw make their way through the smoke and up onto the stage. The crowd is elated, felated, as the band hits their first note, opening with the song “One Long Day”. Its big chorus and angelic harmonies draw a great roar as everyone sings along. Shortstraw, are an obvious Johannesburg crowd pleaser. They have a canny ability to write catchy pop songs which saves them from ending up in the category of “pretentious rock”. They hold a genuine edge, but I can’t help but wonder about some of their lyrical content. While songs like “Underfed” have an addictive afro-pop influenced guitar line and an epic chorus, the verse lyrics hold almost no substance. Strange enough, their hit, “Keanu Reeves” is the only song people really want to hear on the night, but I find it both boring and unfunny. As a band Shortstraw are on the fence. They could go either way. But they need to temper their sense of humour with their musicality quite carefully, or risk becoming that band who sang the novelty hit “Keanu Reeves”.
OK, this next bit is going to be a bit contentious for a lot of Capetonians. But it needs to be said. Holiday Murray only have one really good song in their catalogue – and this, obviously works against them. Their set is kind of samey and invariably comes across as ‘twee’. Having seen them on Youtube, on bicycles, riding through the lush Cape Town burbs singing the highly catchy “Jirey” which, with its Vampire Weekend inspired guitars and solid rhythm, you can’t help but enjoy. It’s an amazing song. But the rest of their set seems both boring and uninspired in comparison, typified by the sparse sound of instruments imprecisely trying to come together. The dry guitars and thumping bass seem to fight against each other as the drums coat the set with monotonous energy which leaves only the drunks in front moving. Others just stand and wait it out. It’s all quite frustrating because songs such as “Stop Thief!” begin with interesting guitar lines and a captivating energy but soon lose that vigour in a lazy performance. Other songs such as “Copperwire” and “Antagonizer” just seem to enhance that dry energy. The audience guts it out, unimpressed and disinterested in the four guys on stage.
Finally, it’s time for the pudding. Or is Gazelle the main course? Hard to say. There is a silence punctuated only by conversations and the clink of beer bottles being kicked across the dancefloor. A man in a mirrored visor and a leopard skin scarf walks with his arms straight and his legs flailing towards his booth. A dreadlocked drummer lays down a solid beat which is covered with understated and ever growing synth-line. Gazelle have become a group who have captured a loving fan base with their special blend of afrobeat, electronica, reggae and dub. They dodge the customary forms of categorization. Too hip hop to be rock and too rock to be rave. And don’t forget the house. Charismatic frontman Xander Ferreira, dressed in an Ndebele patterned suit and Ray-Bans, slides and jumps on stage with a loveable arrogance and a high pitched, almost nasal voice. He’s almost as charming as DJ Invisible’s spastic dancing. Hits like “Die Verlore Seun” and “Chic Afrique” show that the band has a sense of humour but driving bass, the rough synth and back-beat drums keep everyone focussed on what they really came to do. Gazelle are a dance band.
Alas due to small technical problems the performance suffers as the synths go out and the vocals are cut short. Which is a pity, really. Once the music is played, the people slowly filter out into the night, either joining the dubstep kids next door, or filtering across the bridge and back into the burbs.
*All images © Hanro Havenga.