Shoulder to shoulder with the blues
Buddy Guy live
Some people remember details. For others a great moment wears down over time until only the core remains. I had to look up the date (it was late November 1996) when the Hard Rock Cafe opened in Cape Town's Waterfront. Can't say what the weather was like, but it must have been a warm evening. The sliding doors downstairs were wide open. Buddy Guy was playing on a low podium with a few backing musicians. I didn't think I'd ever get to see one of the blues legends live, but there he was. In front of him was a small group of fans. Most of the invited guests were upstairs, talking, mingling, relaxing. A few leaned over a railing and looked down on the band.
Buddy walked to the doors and out on to the quay, followed by someone carrying his amp. He picked his spot and started playing. I saw a gap and found myself standing right next to him. The view was Table Mountain on the right, still lit up at night back then, the quay in front with people ambling by and stopping to look on curiously before walking further. To the left was Robben Island and in front city lights faded towards dark mountains in the distance. I looked at Buddy's face, trying to gauge how he saw it. But he was lost in the sounds he was coaxing out of the strings.
Up to then he had been playing those feisty solos that bristle with a lust for life. I love them. Now he slipped into something gentler. His fingers seemed to be searching his familiar guitar for new sounds, notes that would travel as far as he could send them, like questions hoping for answers. No idea what the song was or how long the moment lasted. But I was with him and the moment is still with me.
On his album Rhythm & Blues there's a track called “Whiskey Ghost”. It's familiar booze blues (“Whiskey ghost / keep on hauntin' me / Whiskey Ghost / just won't let me be”) with a swampy swing that reminds you of the True Blood theme song until he lifts it with a solo like the one on the quay that night. It refreshes one of my great musical memories with every play. This is not an album I'll put on often — it has too many guest vocals, some quite strident, and a rather restrained atmosphere.
But I'll return to “Whiskey Ghost” to relive standing next to Buddy Guy, as close as I've ever been to musical greatness, while he created something unforgettable.
Room to breathe
When they were asked to record a 40-second jingle for a TV ad in 2000, Tommi Eckart and Inga Humpe probably never expected it to launch a solid career in electronic pop. But the tune was catchy enough to stick and a year later they made their debut as 2raumwohnung with the album Kommt Zusammen ("come together"). The couple had been recording since they met in the old East Berlin where both settled shortly after the city was unified. Now it was time for awards, hits and even a run of 33 weeks on the German charts for a later album.
There are so many guitar bands in the world that they have to go against the grain a bit, says Inga. Their music is light, danceable pop – the kind that sounds like it's been around forever and doesn't seem to have a limited shelf life.
Inga writes the lyrics and considers it very hard work, though she enjoys it a lot. "It always feels like a huge mountain I have to climb," she explains, "and I want to write texts I can still take on stage in ten years." You don't have to be fluent in German to hear that the lines and rhymes are tight and that she comes up with some lovely images. She sings them in a wistful, airy voice over smooth arrangements and deceptively simple tunes.
The album Melancholisch Schön ("melancholically beautiful") might be a good place to start. It has 12 of the duo's best-known songs re-recorded and given a bossa nova flavour. The one that benefited most from this treatment was "Sexy Girl", the single from their debut, which became a big club hit again.
The band has done unusual things, like playing Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5 with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra. It was called a "music discovery project" and meant to blur the lines between musical genres.
Recorded mostly in California, Achtung Fertig ("ready, set"), was influenced, according to them, by the latest sounds drifting through Los Angeles. The usual undercurrent of melancholy is a bit stronger this time and it might overwhelm some tracks, but the CD offers as much as the earlier songs.
I often listen to several 2raumwohnung albums back to back. What I get from them is something comforting for long drives, awkward parties and those times when I go a little dark, sitting alone in the work-from-home office.
An alternative space
Here's one you don't hear every day: a music style inspired by the ice age and stone age. Geir Jenssen's “Arctic sound”, as it's been tagged, took shape when he studied geology and despite the petrified roots his music is at the cutting-edge of electronica.
He was born in Norway in 1962 and bought his first synth in 1983. He joined an electronic trio but left after two albums to do his own thing. After trying a blend with acid house and new beat as the main ingredients, he took the name Biosphere and created an album which was rejected by his record company, which called it unmarketable. Luckily electronica fans picked up on it and when Patashnik came out three years later, Biosphere was a familiar name. One track was used for a Levi's TV ad, which didn't hurt either.
Geir went seriously minimalist with the album Substrata and since then he's taken it further by making the beats a background element, allowing the melodies and sounds more breathing space. The film Insomnia (later remade by Hollywood) featured a classic Biosphere soundtrack which made it even more memorable. He also wrote music to be played with the legendary Russian silent film Man With a Movie Camera and for the movie NOKAS, about the biggest robbery in Norway's history.
He's is a serious mountain climber – did the 8 210 metres to the top of Cho Oyu in the Himalayas without oxygen. His sport is an inspiration, but also gives him a chance to record natural sounds. Field Recordings from Tibet, released under his real name, is a fascinating sound diary of his biggest climb.
Too many ambient musicians seem to load up some loops, tweak a few settings and see what happens, but it sounds like Geir really composes his pieces. They have a structure and flow you'd normally expect from modern classical giants like Steve Reich. Not that you have to get all intellectual about it – this is music as pure and refreshing as glacier water.
Still in the dark
When he left Napalm Death, drummer Mick Harris was keen to create a new style based on experimental metal and dark dub. With former Napalm singer and bassist Nic Bullen he formed Scorn, whose unique sound got the tag “dark hop” and was linked later to the dubstep craze of the noughties. Bullen didn't stay long and Mick made his debut as sole member with Giral, which had more loops and ambient effects, making it (more or less) a link between old and new Scorn.
The 2002 album Governor shifted towards regular dubstep. After that Scorn was quiet for a while with Mick producing ambient tracks as Lull, fooling around with drum ‘n’ bass as Quoit and working with John Zorn's experimental jazz group Painkiller.
After a five-year break, Scorn returned with Stealth. It's a highly rated album that drew in dubstep fans, but might seem a bit convential if you've fallen for the earlier, more menacing stuff. Maybe it's just another phase - though the 2008 EP Super Mantis Part 1 is more of the same.
When he was asked what inspired him (in a 2008 interview with Tokafi), he said: “Living in a shit city, Birmingham, a city I hate with a passion. Going to the river and being by myself there is a major influence. Escaping from it all.”
It's interesting to hear Mick (as Scorn and Quoit) among soul mates on the 2008 compilation Forwards in Backwards Time. The double album as a whole feels a bit mechanical, like exercises rather than experiments in drum 'n' bass. If anyone can break this mould, it would be Mick. You can never know where he's going next, though with the EP Yozza, for instance, he's back on the old track. It links to the early Scorn albums: ominous, thumping, intense music that's likely to get more plays than the other dark stuff in your MP3 folder.