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.

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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.

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Medicine Boy at The Mercury, March 2017

I’ve been wanting to see Medicine Boy play live for a long time. There have been few enough psychedelic rock bands in South Africa, and fewer still that have managed to attract audiences outside the country. But I’ve either missed out on sold-out shows, or had conflicting engagements.

My buddy Jason and I entered the hot, three-quarters full Mercury–once the crack team at the door had conquered the arithmetic  necessary to make change.

Heroine were just finishing. It was a shame because they sounded great. I heard heavy toms with two female voices harmonising cooly over the top. I’m eager to see this three piece in the future.

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Heroine img src: facebook.com/heroine

Jason and I agreed that  an all-male outfit didn’t fit the name, The Deathrettes–no matter how great it is. They delivered rousing garage psych-rock at the beginning and end of their set, with a bit of a sag in the middle. The tousled-blonde front man is great on lead guitar, but a psych-rock front-man needs a touch of mystery, and this dude was all party, drinks, and “Wassup mu’fuckaz!”

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The Deathrettes img src: theblogthatcelebratesitself

Medicine Boy nails that mystery. The band is a two piece turned three piece. On the right of the stage, the golden-haired, sleek Lucy Kruger as the witch priestess in black, slamming emphasis on a drum by her keyboard with a mallet that doubles as a wand of invocation. On the other side, Andre Leo is a dark, tangled Puck in skinny jeans, slinging an electric guitar. Between them is a drummer so shrouded in rear-stage gloom that I thought at first they were still using a drum machine (either he was using triggers or the drum-miking was excellent).

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Andre Leo and Lucy Kruger of Medicine Boy img src: medicineboy.bandcamp.com

The pair created a ritualistic theatricality that you seldom see in South African bands. They were often visually separated on stage by saturated monochrome light–Lucy in red and Andre in blue. She used formal sweeps of her drum mallet, standing either facing the audience or in complete profile. He moved more wildly and erratically. Her voice is always pitched high and clear, his low and murmuring. Their parts are kept nicely distinct.

The music too is a series of soft-loud-soft contrasts, as you can hear in their recordings. The sound is reminiscent of Heron Oblivion, but has its own set of timbres and motifs. Heard live, the sounds are delicious. Too often, bands that use harsh sounds are simply unsophisticated and grating. Andre uses rich bursts of howling fuzz or near toneless bursts of ring-modulation static. Keyboards and clean guitars are lush or chiming. I’ve mentioned how solidly the drums came through the PA.

But there’s always some cock-up with the sound at Mercury, like day follows night. The lyrics were entirely inaudible (the only exception being a snatch of Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat). I’m fairly certain that the lyrics add a lot to feeling immersed in this music. So that was a damn shame. Then there’s the audience. Jason said as we walked to the car, he wonders whether it’s just the old man in him. I said, we’d definitely have been pissed when we were teenagers by that scene. At one point during the first of a pair of sweet, gentle songs, I looked around and wondered if I was the only person listening. Everyone I could see in front of the stage was yacking it up at the top of their voices–few even turned to face the stage. I strongly doubt that this is the band’s experience in Europe.

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Medicine Boy img src: infinity.co.za

After one encore, during which the crowd that had paid more than usual to see this band completely ignored Andre’s suggestion that they all be quiet to listen, the band left and, although I could have listened longer, I wouldn’t have wanted to put them through more of that.

I want to see this band again in an audience that enjoys listening to music.