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John Ellis on tour in CT

2010-11-25 10:02
John Ellis, former frontman of Tree63… that would seem the appropriate way to start this review. But after you’ve heard his solo live shows, it seems an irrelevant designation. Ellis has an energy and focus all of his own, and he’s not letting anything hold him back – not media controversy, not clashes with international rock bands… not even an electricity blackout…

John Ellis came to Cape Town for a week, joined by long-time collaborator Jon ‘Scoop’ Randall on bass, and the masterful Barry Van Zyl on drums. I was privileged enough to attend all but one of the five tour dates. They weren’t just carbon-copy gigs: the organic nature of Ellis’s musical style, and his easy rapport with his band allowed him the flexibility to experiment with the set as whim and the audience’s response demanded.

The first show was at Long Street institution, The Purple Turtle, which, on a Saturday night, wasn’t exactly buzzing with people. It was a little strange to witness. I’d been a Tree fan since the first album, but I couldn’t ever remember seeing Ellis play to a tiny audience.

Some may forget that, before the international ‘successes’ of freak shows like Die Antwoord, before The Parlotones, before the money-spinning Bellville scene, Tree63 was one of South Africa’s most successful and enduring musical exports. As in, unprecedented big-label deals, a viable Nashville-based career, and a comfortable place as one of the country’s most loved groups, both on the 5FM Top 5 and Praise & Worship setlists. And deservedly so: Ellis arguably ranks amongst our most talented frontmen and songwriters.

Headlines and rumours

What transpired between Tree’s heyday and Ellis’s solo album, Come out Fighting – has become obscured with sensational headlines and whispered rumours across the pews. Of course, it’s a lot less dramatic than the hoo-ha suggests: Ellis has simply been freed from Christian record-label constraints, to ask mature, intelligent questions about the church, society and politics, both in the media and most importantly, through his lyrics. But the small showing at the first gig made me fear that many former Ellis fans have dropped off in the confused response to his new direction.

The remainder of the week’s shows was to demonstrate, though, that Ellis may have discarded a few fickle fans, but he’s more than capable of gaining new ones. The next show I attended was at Obz Café in Observatory, an intimate theatre, with a decent, receptive audience. Here he dusted off a couple of Tree gems – “Treasure” and the beautiful “Million Lights” – along with his catchy new tracks.

Some of the Come out Fighting songs have an almost punky, rebellious quality (“Rant” and “Government Song” for example), and even the more country-oriented tracks (“Unlucky Ones”, “Maybe just Maybe”) reveal a buoyant twang. What struck me was that these old Tree tracks were now imbued with the same dynamic quality – to an extent that they previously didn’t possess. I believe this was a combination of the chemistry between the musicians – Barry Van Zyl is a truly an inspired drummer – and perhaps also the refreshing freedom that Ellis is experiencing as he blazes his “own way home”.

Jess Yallup, Irvine

Ellis was joined on the tour by two acts who matched his sincerity and musicality perfectly. The first was Jess Yallup, recent Idols Top 10 contestant, who demonstrated bucketfuls more talent than can be contained in a reality show. She sang tastefully-adapted covers and her own thoughtful originals in a rich, folky tone. Also opening for Ellis was Cape Town group Irvine, who brought their beautifully chaotic brand of indie rock to the stage.

Saturday night came around again, the venue was Aandklas in Stellenbosch… and oh, um, 30 Seconds to Mars were playing at Grand West. Would this event clear out the student town? There was nothing to be concerned about: John Ellis owned the room, drawing in an enthusiastic crowd who possibly had never heard of him before, but who were soon dancing to his new tracks, as well as genius U2, Sting and Bob Marley covers.

The last night of the tour took place at the atmospheric Durbanville restaurant-theatre, Die Boer. The evening got off to a positive start, with a surprise set by talented Capetonian singer-songwriter Ashton Gardner, followed by Yallup and Irvine, who delivered a suitably mellower set for the occasion. Then, as soon as Ellis plugged in his guitar, the lights went out. It wasn’t for dramatic effect; the block was out.

Load Shedding

Lesser musicians would have made a couple of chirps about load-shedding, shrugged and headed home. John Ellis, though, grabbed his acoustic guitar, while Van Zyl patched together a percussion section consisting of a snare drum, glasses, shakers and an ice-bucket. And then he sang. And we sang. For two hours! Tree songs, and John Ellis songs, Bryan Adams, and Tom Petty. It was like candlelight karaoke, except led by a veteran frontman, and Johhny Clegg’s drummer (Oh, there was a Juluka track too). The blackout endured, the songs continued – classic requests were made – Elvis, The Beatles, the audience stayed and lent their voices to the choruses. It was magical.

An audience member piped up: “I’d never thought I’d say this, but thank you, Eskom.”

When the lights finally flickered back on around 11.30pm, no-one headed for the door. The audience were by now fully won over, and demanded Ellis and his band hit the stage for a few plugged-in songs, which were delivered with high-paced enthusiasm, despite (or perhaps because of) the amount of red wine consumed during the blackout. Against all odds, it had turned into a memorable evening to end an inspiring tour.

John Ellis, former frontman of Tree63, has an energy and focus all his own. Andrea Buchanan took in 80% of his Cape Town tour, and came away awestruck. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

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