In 1996 I wrote a long piece about the late Nico Burger, guitarist for All Night Radio, Any Driver and Blues Broers, which was the first extended piece about music I ever wrote. I also digressed a bit on various other bands of the era I had followed and so the piece turned into a bit of nostalgia fest of a bygone Cape Town, in the lean years of the late Eighties and early Nineties when so many promising bands either never released any recordings or could not sustain a career in the music industry.
Since then I have published a lot of stuff on my 2 music blogs but it is the Nico Burger piece that has attracted the most responses, from merely interested parties, to Nico's last girlfriend, to John Frick, the original guitarist for the Blues Broers.
John now lives in The Hague, Netherlands and leads a blues band there, called the Blues Hombres. He gave me the links and I checked out a couple of videos of his band on stage. Clayton Frick, John's older brother, who played guitar for The Flaming Firestones and then his own blues band, lives in Australia.
In late April 2010 John wrote to me via Facebook and announced that the Blues Broers would reform, or return after a long hiatus, to play a number of gigs in the Western Cape. Clayton Frick would be here as well and they would try to get as many of the old band members involved too. Nico is dead, as is Frank Frost, the original drummer and father of Albert Frost the last Blues Broers guitarist, but the rest are still alive and kind of kicking.
Locally Albert Frost is probably the most successful alumnus of the Blues Broers as a well-respected session guitarist and recording artist in his own right, with Frosted Orange and also under his own name.
Back in the day the Blues Broers were one of the hardest working bands in South African show business and regularly drew happy crowds who loved nothing better than to have a drink or two and get down to the hard hitting R & B and blues of the Broers and to call the band much loved (as the cliché has it) 9is probably not an understatement. There was an entire band of brothers, so to speak, who hung out with the band and attended the gigs, and I was one of them.
Last Friday night (14 May 2010) and at The Hidden Cellar, upstairs at De Akker in Stellenbosch, a bunch of us had a chance to relive our relative youth and once more experience the groove that is the Blues Broers at their best.
In the mid-Eighties the space that is now known as the Hidden Cellar had no name. It was just the upstairs room at De Akker where bands played. One entered through a door on a side street and walked up carpeted stairs, paid your entry fee, and entered a dark, wood panelled smoky room with rustic tables and benches and an equally rustic looking bar at one end. The stage was low and the band usually had a huge stack of speakers on either side of the stage (the gigantic bass bins of yore were a particular favourite of mine as one could stick one's entire drunken head into one) and probably no monitor for the singer. There was no sound guy, just a primitive mixing board at the side of the stage. The band played its own mix tape during the 15 minute intervals between sets.
It was gloriously low rent and primitive, but I spent many Friday and Saturday nights there, got drunk on Tassenberg and danced most of the night away. In Stellenbosch one danced to the band; in Cape Town the crowds danced to the DJ and stood stock still when the band was one.
Nowadays the Hidden Cellar's entrance is through a different stairway one accesses from a Dorp Street entrance to De Akker, and the interior of the room has been somewhat remodelled and it seems the benches are mostly gone, but otherwise there is a real sense of déjà vu for anyone who spent as much there as I once did. This place is a part of my personal rock and roll history.
De Akker was buzzing with students either already drunk or working hard at getting there and it was crowded and the air was pungent with cigarette smoke. Ahead of me on the stairs was a bloke with a ciggy in hand and one of the woman who worked the entrance told him it the Hidden Cellar was a non-smoking venue, took his cigarette, had a puff and put it out. It was somewhat weird listening to the blues in a room entirely free of cigarette smoke as somehow one must have dim lighting and cigarette smoke to have the entirely psychologically and emotionally correct ambience for blues. Anyhow, that is how it was when I went to clubs a lot. No place for asthmatics or sensitive chests.
Clayton Frick took the time to thank the audience for not smoking and this was, as they say, ironic, seeing as how once upon a time he was a founder of the Smokehouse Blues Club. Maybe it was a smokehouse like the one Ina Anderson of Jethro Tull owns in Scotland, that smokes salmon.
I certainly did note a few familiar old faces, like Vernon Swart, artist and drummer, Valiant Swart (no relation, I guess), Gees (who crouched at the side of the stage and took lots of photographs), my old university and Army buddy, Dan Lombard, and his brother Jack, and a couple of faces that seemed familiar though they were people whose names I never knew in the first place. The younger generation was also suitably represented. Dan's one son plays in the band Stack Shot who opened for the Blues Broers, and some of the kids must have been their mates, but there were also a bunch of student types and others who were between 20 and 50 and I would imagine that many of them either never saw the Blues Broers live before this night, or must have gone with their parents. The crowd absolutely did not consist only of the diehard fan base that would have grown older with the band.
As had been my custom since my early days at De Akker I stood stage left (as one faces it) close to the guitarist, and almost next to the rather small speaker on a pedestal that has replaced the PA stack and humongous bass bins of prehistory. My ears still rang for a couple of hours afterwards though.
Tim Rankin is the new kid in the band. I do not know whether he's played with these guys before, but Rob Nagel was highly complementary of Rankin's skill as tub thumper, saying, as a bassist, that he really appreciates the value of a good drummer, and that Tim Rankin is one. I kind of agree. Rankin is that rarity in a blues or rock drummer – the guy who keeps time, keeps the beat tight, and who is unobtrusive.
Rob Nagel and Simon (Agent) Orange are the core of the band because they are the only members who've been Blues Broers in all incarnations of the band. John Frick was a founder member, but left, to be replaced by Nico Burger and, in a sense, John Mostert, and in turn Nico was replaced by Albert Frost. Tonight therefore, we had the founder guitarist returning to cross frets with the (then) kid who was the last guitarist for the band.
Rob is a pillar of strength on bass and a fury on blues harp, and Agent Orange may not quite resemble Memphis Slim but he can pound a keyboard with the best of them. The combination of keyboard and mouth harp as band instruments meant that the band had 3 lead instrumentalists and also gave it a dimension and depth their contemporary blues bands did not have, as most of them were guitar bands with the emphasis on hot shot lead guitar and not the kind of ensemble playing the Blues Broers were capable of.
The other good thing about the Blues Broers was that it always had three vocalists. John Frick, Rob Nagel and Agent Orange took turns at the microphone and the variety added enough spice to the mix to keep the show from being boring, especially once John Mostert came on board. Mostert is not much of a vocalist, whether with the Blues Broers or with the Boulevard Blues Band he joined when the Broers went into hiatus. At best Mostert is a serviceable hoarse voiced shouter; at his worst (and this is particularly true of his recorded vocals) his voice lacks strength, emotional depth or any sign of a blues feeling.
Tonight Mostert was not too bad. One could almost forgive him for his past sins against the blues, but then he also did not sing so many of the tunes, and I must say he slowly strangled Dolly Mae, not the best of tunes to begin with, to the point that the concept of bathos started to have meaning for me. By that I mean that he did not do well.
Weirdly enough a fan club of women started shouting for his return to the stage when, to their dissatisfaction I guess, there were too many songs in a row by a variety of the other possible singers in the band. The women must have been friends and family of the singer.
Clayton Frick was never a member of the Blues Broers, as far as I know, and led his own band, but was obviously tight with the Broers, given that his brother was their guitarist and because he was in The Flaming Firestones with Rob Nagel. Clayton was a great vocalist and strong rhythm player but I never did like his lead style, which was a bit too harsh and excessive for my taste. Tonight he seemed a tad subdued, except for the couple of words he spoke on stage to thank the audience for not smoking and informing us of the philosophical nature of his band mates. He played a lot of rhythm, some lead and sang some, but his presence, even if it was right in front and centre, was not very authoritative, as if he were slightly uncertain of his position.
John Frick was a good example of the quiet guy who lets his guitar do the talking on stage, except when he sang a couple of songs. One of the interesting aspects of that original version of the Blues Broers was that not every song had a guitar solo, again unlike so many of the other so-called blues bands where the guitarist somehow felt compelled to solo on each and every tune. It was refreshing to have a guy who was content to serve the song and the performance rather than feed his own ego with his fleet fingered brilliance – and a lot of bad solos were played by guys who could not seem to pull their fingers off the freeboard.
Tonight John did more of the same, though he was a lot more flash than I recollect, but then time and experience would count for something and this was after all a little bit of a guitar master blaster reunion, so why not show off your chops? He was still fiery, interesting, his own man and self-effacing yet effective, and he sang a bunch of tunes and played a bit of slide guitar. Not bad for an international superstar; well, he did fly in from the Netherlands.
Albert Frost is possibly not unaware of his status as the kid made good. If memory serves he was 17 when he played second guitar in the Blues Broers behind Nico Burger. When he took over the lead slot, the transition was seamless and, apart from some recordings of shows or rehearsals, his guitar sound is the recorded guitar sound of the Blues Broers.
Albert stepped on stage in spiffy black suit and black shirt and looked like the business, somewhat overdressed compared to the casual attire of the other guys, but he only lacked the trilby to look every inch the professional bluesman. He worked his guitar with the casual insouciance only the very talented and very confident should attempt, and he carried it off. The jacket soon came off, when the sweaty stuff started kicking in, and he showed off all he had and more over the course of the evening, whether he was doing his version of the Stevie Ray Vaughan shuffle, the Bo Diddley beat or just fiery lead breaks.
The Blues Broers managed to have top flight guitarists throughout their lengthy career and tonight the first and the last emphasised that fact over and over.
The songs comprised a heady mixture of own compositions and standards, some from the Broers repertoire and some from John Frick's repertoire. Simon Orange is the best songwriter in the band and his compositions could probably succeed in a pop or rock context as much as in the blues context, and Glove is in my opinion still the best rockin' blues the Broers ever recorded. It is a pity that there was no Hoochie Coochie Man, always a Rob Nagel showcase, or even Clayton Frick's take on Rock Me, Baby, a great tune from the Flaming Firestones days. I guess it was a question of so many tunes and only so much time. As it was, the band finally left the stage at about midnight, after a substantial encore set.
The audience was well entertained and exuberant. A bunch of us hung out at stage front, also because of the pressure from the numbers behind us, and a lot of the youngsters danced and waved their arms about. There is very little to beat hot, sweaty, live R & B on a good night, and this was a good night. It always amazes me that hearing the opening chords or notes of tunes, such as Glove or The Sun Is Shining, still makes a chill of thrill run up and down my spine each time I hear it, regardless of how often I've heard it before. Although I was a teenager in the punk rock era, the blues was my first love (and may well be my last love), and if they run in your veins you can never be separated from them.
I do not care how many bands there are who play similar sets of classic blues tunes. If they are any good, they have my vote. Musical fads come and go but the blues stays, sometimes more fashionable and sometimes virtually ignored by the mainstream, but the blues keeps satisfying those parts of the heart and soul and mind no pop, rock, jazz, rap, funk or classical music can truly satisfy. The blues is not about intellect or deep lyrics (though the topics can often be pretty heavy) or technique or anything to do with mechanical application of principles. You feel it in your gut or you don't. Once you have felt it in your gut, it's there for life.
That was, and on recent evidence is, the thing about the Blues Broers. Although the band was obviously serious about what they did and dedicated enough to keep going long after their peers had given up, they were not po faced about it. The Blues Broers realised that one could and should have fun with the blues for it is party music after all; the music of dark backrooms and country juke joints; the music of alcohol and dancing, and fucking. It is a cliché but I guess you left a Blues Broers gig happy regardless of your state of mind when you entered the room.
I certainly left the Hidden Cellar pretty happy last Friday night.