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Between Rock and a Hard Place

2009-08-12 05:30
Reeburth (photo: Sean Brand, courtesy of www.speak

Opening night debutants Reeburth had attitude in spades. They've certainly got the roll: a dreadlocked singer who poses and prowls around the stage, strips off his t-shirt and scares the crap out of pot-bellied white boys with his six-pack. Hell, they've even got a guitarist who masturbates his axe behind his back just like Jimi. Okay, not quite, but it's a requisitely cool rock 'moment'. Their screamo-tinged spin on Faith No More is also cool. And yes, they're tight for a band only playing their second live gig ever.

So how come the musos and critics were underwhelmed by the Soweto rockers Main Stage debut on Friday night? Was it simply a case of too much roll and not enough actual rock? Or is it because they are black? That the critics demand something more PC than macho bluster? What, it's all good and well to strut your stuff if you're Francois van Coke but black bands need to come with a message? Whatever the case, these brothers are young enough; let's hope there are some real demons ready to roll beneath their rock bluster sometime soon.

Then again, the Black Hotels don't bother with demons much. God old-fashioned songwriting substance is their forte. Sure, they probably best embraced in a nightclub, but bassist Lisa’s angelic siren call on breezy power pop lullabies "I'm the Ghost" and blissed-in guitar shoegazer "Underwater Me" provides an airy counterfoil to lead singer John Boyd’s ‘heart-core’ existential balladry about love lost and living out of sync with the 21st century. 

aKING should've been taking notes. Their headline set on the Main Stage on Saturday seemed more about method acting out some sort of arena rock spectacle for their own existential outpourings than keeping it heart-core. This despite an adoring crowd who were primed to the gills to party; they did, singing along to every word of radio favourites "Heart of a Fool" and "Safe as Houses".

But there's a lingering problem with aKING: their lyrics. As a veteran muso put it at breakfast the next day, somehow "an English version of Fokofpolisiekar's fire just doesn't translate." He’s got a point. An inherently musical language like Afrikaans lends itself towards the poetic, but English can be a minefield of clunky rhyming couplets for a second language speaker. Perhaps it's time for aKING to shelve the existential poetry anyway and simply go back to Afrikaans rock basics.

Still, at least they didn't do any crappy cover versions. Unlike CrashCarBurn who kick started an increasingly disturbing trend by tossing off no fewer than four covers including a shambolic emo-pop punk take on Bryan Adams' "Summer of 69". Elsewhere Durban indie poppers The Arrows murdered The Cure's "Love Cats", kidofdoom destroyed a perfectly good set with a pantomimed parody of Huey Lewis' "Power of Love" and even Afrikaans rock goddess Karen Zoid fired up her audience with Billy Idol's "White Wedding" and a medley of classic rock covers. "This isn't Oppikoppi" lamented one particularly disgruntled Koppi regular, "it's Oppi Covers!"

A smash hit getting an imaginative makeover is great, but karaoke crowd pleasers? To paraphrase rock' roll comedian Bill Hicks, since when is mediocrity a good role model for our kids? And what the hell happened to original rock 'n roll fire anyway? The kind of rock that made swinging Rat Pack crooner Frank Sinatra, dismiss it as "the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear." 

Francois Van Coke knows. The Kartel may have played an acoustic set with blues broer Gerald Clarke on the Levi's stage, but that unplugged sundowners setting made the self-loathing burning beneath the ugly, desperate and yes, sometimes vicious bile of Francois' lyrics every bit, if not more brutal.

Taxi Violence also burned up the koppi. But with a swell of something dangerous beneath the dirty blues rock trappings of newer songs off The Turn: desperation. They should be much bigger than they are. And they know it. They're at those crossroads, that last chance saloon. And you can hear it. What makes Taxi so great is simple: they keep it simple, delivering dirty blues rockers about sex, drugs and booze. It's a classic formula, but Taxi truly believes in rock ‘n roll, so you believe them. As do Architecture of Agression. Their graveyard set was heavy, very heavy: no frills, no fuss, just ass-f***kingly heavy. "If you can't handle it, get the f*ck out of my mosh pit!" growled their guitarist. Yep, their 'boys only' cocktail of death driven tech metal thrash is definitely not for pussies.

Not entirely unlike Terminatryx's live soundtrack to vintage black and white vampire flick, Nosferatu, which was one of the festival's sleeper successes. Hearing something as conceptual as gothic art cinema at the koppi is pretty odd. So it took a few frames to decode exactly whether this was cool or just pretentious crap. It was cool. Simon 'Fuzzy' Ratcliffe's woodwinds, Sean Ou Tim's drums and efx, Matthias van Dijk's violin, and Sonja's eerie – yet never quite over the top - cabaret vocal moans and murmurs were a welcome antidote to the conveyor belt of colour by numbers rock spiel from the likes of Isochronous and The Cavalier.  

Terminatryx weren’t the only ones conjuring ghosts. Vocalist and trombonist Siya Makuzeni channelled some serious Afro-rock demons in her new band Ipi Fuze with ex-Plum funksters Kevin (guitar) and Warren Lecher (bass). Pity that only a handful of festivalgoers bothered climbing up the koppi to expand their musical horizons. Not many artists even bothered to show the ladies some respect on Women’s Day either. It was left to Amandla sister, Thandiswa to give the sisters a shout out with her bewitching Afrobeaten brew of Afro-pop, soul, jazz, maskandi, and electrifying funk. In an age where socio-political relevance is too often castrated at the altar of demographic con-shizness, Thandiswa’s spiritually funky set was a potent reminder that there is a revolution or three still worth fighting for.

The notoriously misogynistic South African music scene could have learned some lessons from Thandiswa. But nope, most people were content to stay in their comfort 'boy' zone of dance pop rockers Die Heuwels Fantasties. Their Jack Parow 'hit' was worth it, but listening to the rest of their repertoire you can’t shake the nagging feeling that it’s an emo Fokopilisekar milking the whole hip indie disco-electro cash cow.

 Thank Christ, for savage 'zef-rap-rave' messiahs Die Antwoord then. No advertising blurb prepares you for the mind altering experience of watching Ninja (that's Waddy 'Max Normal' Jones for the uninitiated) and his cartoon booty babe sidekick Yo-landi’s ferocious potty mouthed performance art hop piece. Consciousness meets con-shiz-ness in their B-grade bump 'n grind fantasy that's part postmodern bling-hop deconstruction, part masochistic reality TV rap nightmare, part doomed naïf romantic rhyme paradise and part…nope, you've got to experience it first hand. But here's the subtext you've been searching for: Die Antwoord are keeping it real.

How real? Well, their delirious “Doos Dronk” colab with festival headliners, Fokofpolisiekar certainly invoked some demons in the Afrikaans rock heavweights who delivered their most kickass koppi set in years. As Iggy Pop put it, "What did Christ really do? He hung out with hard-drinking fishermen."

"Everyone talks about rock these days; the problem is they forget about the roll," chirped Keith Richards when a journo one asked him why the hell the Stones were still rolling after so many years. The axe man had a point. Classic rock ‘n roll is as much about swagger as it is about substance. At this year’s Oppikoppi Smoorverlief Festival it was a constant battle between the two.
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