White Cityby Thomas Okes / 27.07.2009
Wednesday evening is a nice time to be in Harrington Street. If you can escape the harassment of the strangely self-righteous car guard and make it inside the Assembly’s doors, you’re doing well. The bouncers smile and say hello, without patting me down or punching me out: this never happens to me. Inside, there’s an outop squinting through bifocals and lurching through groups of kids, looking for his seat and his drink. Next to him, a tattooed guy in a wife-beater is shouting a joke at a tiny girl in a cardigan. Overhead, loudspeakers pour out a random mixture of Nickelback, techno and Thom Yorke. On a Wednesday night in Cape Town, this is about as homely as it gets.
All around this venue, there’s a faint air of expectancy: Blaise is leaving soon, entrusting the club’s goings-on to his former Circus Ninja buddy and current RCM head, Pierre Coetzee. Blaise has made this place a weekday shelter for all sorts of scenesters and the marks of his managerial tenure are everywhere, in innovations like Ping Pong Sundaes, arcade machines, The Room, and the venue’s regular high standard of live music. In this instance, we can be grateful to the Assembly for bringing Isochronous all the way from Pretoria, as welcome headliners to a far less exciting duo of Capetonian openers.
The first of these, Southpaw, is a cheese band. Both vocalists sport enormous afros; one looks like that guy from My Name Is Earl and the other wears a t-shirt which says, “Animal Control: get in the van bitch”. Their songs are light-hearted, in a bubbly-happy kind of way, and too concerned with being jokey and clever to be very interesting. Nearly all of them require the backing of a decent crowd clap-along and most include choruses of the “doo-da-doo-doo” variety.
Their set involves a lot of funky jamming and smiley head-bopping. One song in particular opens with a promising stream of Radiohead-esque experimentation before disintegrating into typically flimsy lyrics and the usual jangling, reggae-ish cymbals. In another, one of the guys sings the trumpet. Just yet, they’re not a whole lot more than cute. The preppy girls skip along to the jaunty beat and the gawky guys look around for someone who might be dealing something. And that’s about it, really, at least for now. If Southpaw are ever going to be properly engaging, they’ll need to find something to make them different.
Inge Beckmann arrives on stage in ballet character shoes; the choice of footwear is appropriate for a woman who is living, breathing theatre. She has presence by the bucket-load, which might be another way of saying that she can sometimes be migraine-inducing. In a confined space, her voice booms and echoes in a prolonged burst of auditory-overload. Each of her songs involves a different set of instruments. Jacques du Plessis plays back-up to Beckmann’s lead keyboard/laptop arrangement, and regularly moves between bass, bongo drums, sitar, lead and rhythm guitar. In a final gesture of extravagant over-complication, he brings out a bandsaw and plays the thing with a cello bow.
Beckmann is certainly popular: two emo chicks in the customary combination of checked shirts, skinny jeans and high heels are writhing around in circles, all coy pouts, mincing hips and batting eyelashes. But it’s difficult to find substance behind all of the show. What is there, really, beyond the impressive reach of her vocal range? Lyrically, she is frustratingly weak (just what does “oooaawaaaooo” actually mean, anyway?) and as her instinct seems to be toward an over-exaggeration of absolutely everything, her solo set becomes a cluttered, confused, caterwauling riot.
In contrast to both of the night’s curtain-raisers, Isochronous is a showcase of strong subtlety. They’re nearing the middle of their nationwide “Speed of Sound” tour and are clearly honing the technicalities of ticking along. As a band, they’re beginning to work together with a sort of oiled-wheels ease, flying around the Assembly’s stage in comfort and confidence. Richard Brokensha, lead singer and sole guitarist, is a marvel, managing to take this band on their current tour and, at the same time, record a new album for his more popular project, Kidofdoom.
Like Kid, Isochronous’ music has a mathematical logic, its arrangements spliced together with nuanced precision and a flair for the facts. Here, it is activated with timing and tension: where it threatens to explode it is reeled back in, and when it begins to fade it is teased back to pulsing life. Like some kind of mechanical tornado on remote control, it is capable of rising slowly and dying suddenly, on the varying whims of the band’s educated fingers. And those fingers can drive a crowd insane. One Indian girl in the front row clutches her head, grins madly, and looks ready to lose her mind; behind her, a guy with a snor straight from the Seventies stares at the ceiling, his arms and fingers following the music around the air.
It is not that Brokensha et al are more accomplished musicians, though theirs was the more accomplished performance. It simply appears as though the Pretorians are more attuned to their own pros and cons: they know what they have, and they’re not trying to milk it. If you can see them, do. Their gigs are a crash course in the science of showmanship.