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White Man Blues

by Roger Young / Images by Michael Ellis / 19.08.2011

“The way to write American music is simple. All you have to do is be an American and then write any kind of music you wish.” – Virgil Thompson

My first thought was that I had wandered into some kind of Amy Winehouse tribute show. The newly refurbished Obs Cafe was filled with inked bodies, painted faces and hair tortured into early 60’s soul style; nouveau beehives abounded. There is also a fuck load of red velvet about. Through the bar, I could vaguely make out the burlesque show past the crowd pressing, eager to see tits hidden by frills. Burlesque, like train spotting or listening to Owl City, has always seemed to me to only appeal to the people who actually want to be in it. I’m at the Sailor Jerry V8 party and, as usual, I’m deeply suspicious and not drunk enough. There is something about the skilled attention to artifice that comes with the “rockabilly” scene that reminds me of kids playing dress up; something that feels like fantasy borne of a need to hide, a yearning, not to become fully oneself but, to become something else entirely. It’s entirely nit-picky of me to bring this up because the balance, the root of the crowd is the skinny rock types, down dressed in black and smoking like they’re trying to drop more weight right there. Expectancy fills the air, when will the bands just fucking start?

It opens with The Pits. I can’t tell if the band is playing dirty blues or if the sound is just terrible. They’re playing a chugging white boy blues, the bassist has a polka dot dress and a bow in her hair, she leans into the bass like she thinks she’s meant to. The lead guy is all dressed in black, singing with a snarl and a curl that feels borrowed. The songs are good but all relentlessly similar. It makes me think of the whole white boys can’t play the blues thing. It makes me miss Lonesome Dave. While The Pits carry on playing really good background blues, I retreat to the bar where there is a girl looking into her drink like she thinks she’s in a Tom Waits song. And she is, just not the one she’s dreaming of.

Peachy Keen start by launching their debut music video for “I Shot A Man Down” which, like the song, is a giant upchuck of rockabilly and 50’s clichés; I’m glad they got it out of their system.

Peachy Keen are too big a band for the tiny stage, almost tumbling off in a flurry of leopard print, Rosie the Riveter tattoos, checks and braces. Dom and Alex, the two brassy lead women are excellent hype men but they overplay their hand, the onstage banter reducing their performance, at times, to a cabaret act. They work through the clichés like they’ve been reading through Johnny Cash’s childhood journals but they do it with verve, warmth and passion. They’re tight, energetic, and fun; playing a bouncy speed country-esque rockabilly. They’re a wealth of blues tropes, shooting men, having to leave town, love on the run, etcetera dressed in scene kid clothes. Peachy fall into that difficult category of party band; they’re skilled musicians playing well-constructed original, breezy light popabilly songs that sound like something else. They command the audience and get them dancing but they’re not pushing any boundaries. Their music and look has all the outward signifiers of rockabilly but none of the lived in feel. They’re a young band and the content of the songs feels like a yearning rather than an actual experience; it’s like they’re singing about things that they wish would happen to them, things they know little about. This naiveté detracts from the power of the performance, but as they work through the Jerry Lee Lewis style keyboard riffs and skilled tempo shifts, they have the burlesque crowd eating out of their hands. Dominique and Alex are a perfect balance between stumbling and composed, the rhythm section backing them up with muscle but, with the veneer of rockabilly and lack of true connect to what they’re singing about, they come across as generic and suburban. Essentially it shouldn’t matter what kind of music you play, as long as it comes from a real place, and unfortunately this is not a place that Peachy Keen truly inhabit. The songs are about transmitted rather than experienced concepts: thoughts beamed in from elsewhere, an unwillingness to look at the present moment; which makes them a true expression of a certain kind of South Africa. The desire to have been born elsewhere, in another less confusing time. I’m not suggesting Peachy get a djembe player, it’s not about the actual way their music is constructed; it’s about the superficial ideas it expresses. With bombast and verve, Peachy Keen do what they do well, and what they do is dream of another place. If only they were aware of that, they might become more than just a band replicating a genre.

The Great Apes are not fucking around; fucking around is a distant foreign concept, which I imagine would only come into their consciousness at moments of extreme desperation. They posses their fat hard, liquid as the night, blues chords with a profound recklessness. Again, the small stage has half the band on the floor. Yusif rifles around for one or two songs at crowd level but soon he’s clawing his own space out on the stage, breathing like a free diving dolphin killer. The Apes have this rough edged rolling that’s forced on by the simultaneous tightness and abandon of the rhythm section, a heady mix of testosterone and suffering. You can never really hear what Yusif is howling about but it doesn’t really matter. It’s the essence of primeval meaning, of connect, it’s all in the gut. They’re the difference between Jerry Lewis and Little Richard. Yusif doing his little speed shuffle on the stage like a scarecrow in a storm as the blues behind him builds into a storm of punk or metal or some hard wall of exorcism. There is a short girl in the front row with one of those annoying tiny hats who can’t help herself but sneer as they pound the stage, the floor, our bowels. Suddenly it’s over, Yusif announces the cops are shutting the gig down and they play out building up to a fuck you of fuck, penetrating deep inside.

You see, it’s not like The Great Apes are about original concepts either, everything has been done before, it’s about the way the grind it hard to the ground. We don’t question their validity because they are incredibly present, full of rage and connection. To re-contextualize the opening Thompson quote, the way to make South African music is simple. All you have to do is be South African and then make any kind of music you wish. Whether it is rings true or not depends entirely on how you posses it.

All images © Michael Ellis

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