Tape Hiss & Sparkle At The Armchair – April 2017

Disclosure: I’m acquainted with the whole band and have been good friends with bass player, Helen Westcott for many years. Hopefully I won’t give you a biased perspective. Also I hopefully won’t have to say anything that’ll will make them hate me forever.

One of the big advantages of living in Observatory, as my cellist friend, Nicola, said last night, is that you can decide late in the afternoon to go and see a music show, and then just amble over there. The Armchair, which used to be a bank and has a vault door behind the bar, has been hosting gigs since at least 2001. I can remember gigging there with Krakatoa in its first couple of years.

Now though, the creeping death of gentrification has severely restricted the volume at which you can play there. So the room has wooden covers over all the windows like they’re expecting a tornado. It makes it hot. Very, very hot.

So it’s a good thing to be there for bands that need you to sit still and listen carefully as the sweat drips down your neck. The opening act was Martinique, a young woman who markets herself under the name Matinino. She faced us seated at an electric piano in a broad-brimmed black hat and black dress, and sang personal stories through story-book lyrics. She blended her clear high voice with itself through simple use of a looper pedal, complementing these harmonies with a confidently played grand piano sound.

It just so happens that she completely had my number. I’ve just been gorging myself on psychedelic folk bands of the early ’70s. Pentangle, Bröselmaschine, Vashti Bunyan, and, particularly, Trees, whose song, The Garden of Jane Delawney was very much in the same vein as Martinique’s story-book, dream lyrics.

Nicola said that she’d like to see her behind a real grand piano, even though she agreed with me that the deep reverb on the voices and the piano blended very well–at the expense, perhaps, of not sounding very ‘live.’ And I didn’t like hearing about looper pedals during a show. To me it always sounds like the musician is trying to draw attention to something exciting and new, while actually loopers have become something of a scourge as musicians understandably try to get a bigger slice of the pitiful performance money while still sounding like multi-piece bands.

But she used it well, and these minor pet-hates in no way stopped me being utterly enchanted by her songs. She’s definitely on my to-see-again list.

SimonTamblyn
Simon Tamblyn img src: alexanderbar.co.za

I saw Tape Hiss and Sparkle in an earlier line-up and was not impressed. Simon Tamblyn, the singer, song-writer, and guitar player was in an irritable mood and managed to put me into one before the end of his set. This time was completely different. The whole band were enjoying themselves immensely. Their friendship and rapport was obvious. As the band traded jokes over the course of the show, Simon’s laconic, understated humour was enjoyed by the audience too, which laughed harder at each successive quip.

Simon has an comfortable eccentricity. He married a black kilt and red boots to a casual black t-shirt. Helen elegantly carried off a kind of pirate chic in appearance and playing style–her mist-blue Precision bass growling with a picking motion that looks like she’s sewing a seam at speed. Drummer (and published science fiction author, as I quite recently discovered), Mandisi Nkomo–who’d guested briefly with Martinique–looked incongruously prim in a high buttoned shirt and a high-seated, delicate touch on the drums.

Simon’s songs carry an early 2000s vulnerability that’s mirrored in his very inviting performance. I remember seeing him as lead singer in the alt-rock outfit, The Sleepers, where he seemed out-of-place among the Tool-obsessed rockers. Singing confessional songs, like he’s admitting his secret fears at the end of a garden party tête-à-tête, he felt far more convincing. I have a limited basis for comparison of his singing style since I missed much of the music which likely influenced him. The vocals remind me a bit of The Decembrists.

The songs are lyrically coherent in a venue like The Armchair in which you can hear them. And they’re full of hooks. But in a stripped-down band like this, doing these kinds of songs, I felt strongly that I’d enjoy the songs more and more as I became more familiar with them. Hearing them for the first time, I felt that they were songs that could easily grow to love, but I didn’t love them yet.

The band worked well. The powerful sound of Helen’s bass provided a solid, indie body to what might otherwise have come off as a light, folk sound. The drums were necessarily light due to the noise restrictions, and only the bass drum was miked up. But Mandisi’s playing is excellent. When I see them again, I’d like to hear the whole kit amplified.

My biggest gripe is with the guitar sound. Simon was playing what looked like a vintage Epiphone concert guitar which I’m sure sounds excellent acoustically. But plugged in it has that typically nauseating quack of an unmodified piezo pickup. I’d like to see him either switch to an electric like a Telecaster, or get a more sophisticated direct-input box that either equalises the sound better, or something like an Aura Spectrum DI that puts the acoustic sound back in.

But if the piezo sound is my bugbear, I must admit that I hardly noticed it by the end of the show. And that sharp attack does cut through the band nicely when strumming. It was in the solo guitar parts that it got my goat.

Advertisements

The Pixies – Cape Town, March 2017

Pixies1-Large
Lovering, Lenchantin, Santiago, and Black img src: pretoria.getitonline.co.za

Young people, here’s a sad truth: that tribe you inhabit that seems to own the streets and the night-spots, that defines what’s hip and what the issues are? They’ll one day retreat into cars and offices, homes and restaurants, and they’ll mysteriously disappear from view and be replaced by another tribe that despises all yours stood for. But just occasionally they may re-emerge, blinking in the light.

The crowd for The Pixies at Kirstenbosch constituted an informal reunion of Cape Town’s Generation X. We had the experience, all but forgotten, of recognising many faces (usually a little greyer and a little stouter) in the crowd without necessarily knowing names or even where we’d seen each other before.

And there on a wide stage were the alleged best bands of our generation. In the local case, The Springbok Nude Girls, opening for the internationally beloved Pixies. Named for the cover girls on a series of compilation records put out by Springbok Radio in the ’70s, and ’80s, Stellenbosch’s Nude Girls seemed improbably original with machine gun vocals, a trumpet that danced over the grunge guitar chords, and the echoing whoops that made square-jawed frontman Arno Carstens into an almost credible South African equivalent of a celebrity.

Springbok-Nude-Girls-The-Bioscope
The Springbok Nude Girls img src: thebioscope.co.za

This time Carstens looked in his skinny jeans like a rugby player shyly enjoying his first adult ballet class. His total contempt for his audience had gone and with it much of his fuck-the-rules power. While guitar player, Theo Crous, laid into his Telecaster with every ounce of his ’90s vim, and the new (I presume) drummer was giving it hell, Carstens and bass player, Arno Blumer, seemed to be phoning it in. He could no longer reach those iconic whoops, which had to be filled in by Adriaan Brandt on the trumpet.

That’s not to say that the audience wasn’t loving it, which may tell you that I may not have been in entirely the right headspace. They roared along with the well-loved tunes and called out for more. I was dead centre, about three metres from the stage, and was probably getting most of my sound from the stage amps and monitor speakers. I’m pretty sure the sound was a lot better a few metres back catching the convergence of the main speaker towers. But I couldn’t help thinking, unfairly or not, that this being the greatest South African band of the ’90s says more about the ’90s than about them.

South Africans are so starved of international musicians that women behind us were yelling at The Pixies’ guitar tech* to take his pants off. Jason was naturally quick to join them. The band came on in darkness and opened without a word in a blaze of light and much improved sound. If I was still only getting stage sound, it was a lot louder and a lot clearer.

Pixies Our View
Our view of The Pixies pic by Jason Coetzee

The wordless opening was no mere device. As the band went through a careful mix of well-worn classics and songs from their recent record, Head Carrier, with hardly a pause between any of them, the Alfred Hitchcockesque figure of Frank Black (who still goes by his given Charles Thompson in private) said not a word to the audience. Neither did slender, well-preserved guitar player Joe Santiago. In fact, neither of these two remaining primary icons of The Pixies seemed to even look at, or take in the audience at all. It was new bass-player, Paz Lenchantin, and drummer, David Lovering, who gave signs of being present in Cape Town.

Their performance though, was faultless. They hit all of their best loved numbers (besides former bass-player, Kim Deal’s, signature piece, Gigantic) with energy and conviction. Black never shied away from the screaming choruses that electrified us in the band’s glory days of the late ’80s and early ’90s and, despite not being a technical guitar player, Joe Santiago nailed every fiercely original part he ever wrote.

The crowd surged ecstatically for their biggest numbers, with the youngsters hopping onto the stage and being hurled off again by stagehands like kittens. I loved hearing numbers like This Monkey’s Going to Heaven, and Debaser. But some of their biggest numbers I’ve so over-played that they left me a bit cold. I actually found myself bored by their best-known tune, Where Is My Mind–waiting for it to end.

Where I lost myself completely was in the new numbers like Tenement Song and especially Magdalena–songs which prove that Black’s song-writing has only matured and refined over 30 years–the dreamy Bossanova numbers, Velouria and Havalina, and their cover of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s Head On.

After they’d blasted through about twenty five tunes, they acknowledged the audience for the first time, still wordlessly, took some bows, did a single encore, and then it was done. I don’t wish to suggest that my experience was universal, but I found the professional but impersonal style of Black and Santiago a barrier to immersing myself fully in experiencing the performance of a band I’ve adored for two and a half decades. They gave no indication that they had any investment in playing to this audience in this city, and I think many of us want that illusion from our artistic heroes. They literally did not speak a single word to the crowd. Lovering though, who never flagged in what must have been a truly gruelling performance, was beaming during the bows, which counted for something.

I’ll avoid saying too much about the behaviour of my generation. I shouted at one old fool who was trying to relive his youth at the expense of everyone around him. “Moshing,” was one of the shittiest, whitest, notions of the ’90s. It’s even worse if it’s not kept to the front of the stage where participation can be considered consensual.

*Guitar nerd note: I love a band with great taste in guitars, and The Pixies have that. Even a non guitar nerd friend was impressed by Joey Santiago’s black and gold, Bigsby’d Les Paul Custom (you see guitar folks? People do notice). A cherry ’60s Bigsby’d ES345 and a pick-guardless dark-back ’57 reissue goldtop rounded out his choices. Black played a well-worn blonde Telecaster. Bass player, Paz Lenchantin, used a covetable, well-worn, off-white Precision, with a red/tortoiseshell guard (with a scarlet flower attached to the headstock), that may have been an original or some kind of distressed reissue. Joey played through a master volume JCM800 and a Fender Princeton or Deluxe Reverb. Black played through a small pile of AC30s. It’s a good example of how to get tonal separation between two guitars.