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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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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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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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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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.