... Over 50 shows across South Africa with Doc MacLean...

Oct 22, 2017

Cape and Karoo: Round One

South Africa journal: note to myself. You never know what the gig will be out in the Karoo. Miles and miles of spectacular nothing, and then: this juke joint. Ronnies. Sex Shop, that is. Not Beverley Hills, not some snooty cafe on the Cape waterfront. Ronnies Sex Shop, Hwy 62, Karoo Desert. You could probably send a postcard to that address. It's dry here. Very dry, so Tim Parr and I drink Castle beer in the heat. Is it good? It's cold- and that's what they serve.

The piano is a bit jaked. Motorcycles roar up in a cloud of dust. Some German girl takes her bra off and gives it to the barman. Hey, the Blues is here. Nobody ever knows what they'll find in the Karoo. Or lose. Or leave behind. You never know what the gig will be, or what will happen next. She wants to take all of her clothes off for a photo. The barman is shaking his head, "you can't do that in here," and I'm wondering why not, or why not now? Like now now. She's got her top off and he's waving his hands. I'm wondering why not with me? The picture, that is. I'm thinking that some of my fans might drop me, but I'm not thinking all that clearly as I'm looking at her celtic tattoos and Tim grabs my arm. We've got a sound check to get to somewhere else down this blast furnace of a highway, and we've probably had too many Castle beers already. Well, more than likely too many Castle beers. Was anybody counting? It doesn't matter. Nothing matters quite enough. Nothing. Apparently not. No. But we roll ourselves out into the blinding light, and within moments the whole deal has vanished in the rear view mirror. Today, the blues is all about self-sacrifice and professionalism.


And After...

Soon enough the dust gives way to patches of green, to small farms and dorps. People walking on the roadsides, bundles high on their heads. At Ladismith, our hosts have decked out the stage in skulls, crossbones, and plastic garlands for the show. The side stage view is like a studio postcard by day, an observatory by night. A wicked, bright sky, with all the stars in the wrong places. And here, on the edge of the universe, it's a great little crowd and they hang on every word.

Post show, we sit up late and play some more. People are excited that I've got Tim Parr with me. He's pretty humble and low key, so it's easy to forget that he was a full-fledged rock star as a young man. As songwriter-guitarist for the band Elemental he once had major recording and publishing deals, lived in Hollywood, and played on major stages around the world. We met up last year at one of my Johannesburg shows and now, somehow, he's managed to sign on to a bunch of my tour dates! Ok, he had some down time, and we thought it might be nice to do a few shows together...

Tim's fans in South Africa have never forgotten him... That's Tim Parr? Would he play a few songs? What a wonderful way to finish our night. With a vocal delivery that suggests the vulnerability of a Neil Young, combined with the melodic wisdom of a Cat Stevens, his early success and continued fame are easily understood. I must admit that I feel kind of awkward having an artist of this stature along as guitarist companion- but we've become good friends and are having big fun on this little road trip. And he's a really good guitar player- I've had a more than a few of these! Sometimes the right people meet up in this world. 

Soon enough, we're moving on to another desert location: this one, near Barrydale. That's a town with probably the coolest hotel in the Karoo, the best used bookstore, and the most exotic milkshakes. But we're not staying- or playing- there. Instead, we are well beyond town in a stone and adobe structure perched half up a parched hill. Cacti crowd the parking lot. Mental note: wear shoes. I've hurt my calf in a running accident, so I'm limping badly as we arrive to set up for a two night engagement. Gimp man. I feel like an old blues singer today. Or at least I resemble some of the one's I used to know so well. A little bit. I limp. How cool is that? It's dead quiet. There's not a car in sight out on the highway. When the wind quits for a moment, I can hear the buzzing of winged insects.

Legend has it that the former owners of this property intended to open a Harley-Davidson dealership out here in the desert. Why? What were they thinking? In any event, they built this interesting structure out of stone. Slabs of shale were painstakingly combined to produce this image of an eagle. Today, small birds nest in the cracks- very much a living wall.

Tim and I make our way inside- also in search of life- but agreeing to settle for a cold drink. Or a decent cup of coffee...

Surprisingly, there are a few souls in the place already. Some, part of a diplomatic mission representing a country I can't name, had attended a meeting with representatives of some other countries, about something. But tonight, it's all about the blues- and we manage to seriously deplete the bar on their platinum expense accounts. Later: It is agreed that the World is a Better Place, after which we were, I believe, called upon to play several encores. I don't know what it was all about, but I made sure that Canada had a seat at the table. God knows we're great diplomats.

Tim is unsure as to whether or not South Africa got a great deal last night. I assure him that it did! I feel like a million bucks. Well, like a few thousand rand, anyway. We spend the morning with Karoo Saloon owners Janet and Marius Brewer- discussing plans for next year's tour through Namibia.

And, soon. It's the road again. Hwy 62. Naked blacktop, slashing the landscape.

It rains, everywhere except Cape Town. That's a cruel tease. Here, we pause for a moment above the sprawl of the city. It's beautiful, even under an angry sky.

Nothing about touring musicians- thank goodness...

Back in Cape Town. In spite of the drought, I see this city as lush. It is gorgeous, but certainly not what it has been. My friends Gill and John continue to teach me about water conservation. I'm motivated: it's partially my first world, urban Canadian guilt. I come from a place where water is cheap, plentiful, and good. But that's no reason to be careless with this resource, no reason to needlessly waste it. My habits have already changed since my first trip to Africa, but now- as this place becomes my place, too- my concerns are sharpened. I've learned to "flush when necessary." I've learned to save the basin water and pour it into the toilet tank, to take the dishwater out to the garden. I can brush my teeth with a couple of mouthfuls of water. It's not just about the place that you are in, but about the world we occupy together. I do believe that individual actions make a difference. Here, in the grip of water shortage, the community is pulling together like never before.

This little river runs through parts of Cape Town. Local efforts to clean up the channel, introduce indigenous plants, and restore a more natural environment have been very successful.

My friend Gill said she would take me out for dinner. Soon, next to an old church, we sheltered from the cold, evening wind. It's always windy in the Cape. Around us: the homeless, the lost, the broken, and the insane. Lump me today into any of these groups. Dressed in rags and feathers, blankets and bags. The bundles: carried, dropped, re-carried, lost and found by these people of the street. Greeting them by name, Gill introduces me to the gathering numbers on the stoep. There is nothing in this place to fear. Nothing much. If only one's own fall from grace.

The doors of the St. John mission can't open fast enough for these hungry souls. And soon, the pouring of the tea, the offering of prayer: trading a moment of divine salvation for a rice and chicken meal. One of my table mates, Eugene, an older, coloured man from Port Elizabeth, gracefully explains the history of music to me: how Satan was the first blues singer. Read about it in the Book of Revelations. Read about it in your Bible! The Sign of the Beast. Apparently not a bad thing. Like this meal. Apparently like me, and all these other souls- marked in some way by the Beast, but welcomed at God's table. Tables cleared, Eugene returns to sleep in dry cold of the park in which he preaches, and Gill and I make our way back to our lucky beds in Rosebank.

Next morning Gill, her daughter Catherine and I, head out into a region known as the Cape Town Flats. It's a large and storied area: inhospitable terrain developed in the apartheid era to facilitate the physical separation of races. Now: no longer a forced domicile, but a patchwork of mostly poverty stricken communities- scar tissues from one of the world's darkest times. Still open wounds that hobble the nation. Not a place I might of driven through by myself- although later in my Tour I am destined to return here alone. We're delivering a donated computer to a disabled young man that Catherine is tutoring. I bring him a couple of posters. Gill and Catherine assure me that travelling together, in the daylight, we are fine. And they are right. Today. Although crap can happen anywhere, at anytime, you can't let fear rule your life. These open, flat streets are pretty in the sun: little houses with brightly painted walls. Heavily fenced schools, their colourful murals obscured by the wire. People walking. How many more years will it take before this is a "rainbow" neighbourhood, not a "coloured" place? What keeps people here? Or keeps them out? History is here. Painted, and welded onto the walls, written on banners, and kept in the memories of those who bore witness.

In October of 1985 I played clubs up and down Toronto's Spadina Ave., Queen St., and in the late night wilds of Kensington Market. With my horn band, I did ten consecutive days in some of Montreal's best venues, and also found time to do a couple of shows in upstate New York. I think my first single, "Memphis Town," had just come out. While we were dancing and singing about getting laid, or not getting laid, and going to Memphis- unknown to us, others were dancing a much more serious dance.

On October 15, 1985, in Athlone, the area still bordered by Klipfontein Rd., Belgravia Rd, Thornton, and the Alex Sinton High School,  heavily armed security forces concealed themselves in a delivery truck. Driving into the centre of a student, anti-apartheid protest, they ambushed the gathering, shooting three young people dead and injuring scores of others. This became known as the Trojan Horse Massacre. As one who "comes from away," I wanted to stop at the site of this event. Why? I'm not exactly sure, but visiting historical sites does seem to provide a broader, more tactile understanding of what happened then- and what is happening now. There is a good sized memorial on this humble street. A group of not-in-school aged toughs, sit in front of it sharing a mid-day drink, a smoke. One hails me, "who are you? where you from?" I slide my camera deep into my pocket and reply that I'm from Canada, and that I wanted to see this place for myself. Ironically, I hear Drake blasting from the window of a passing car. "Nobody comes here," he said, standing up and checking me out. "Nobody." Gill and Catherine indicated that I should get back in the van, and ten minutes later I was making coffee in their kitchen.

I'm re-visiting Nelson Mandela's autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," and I'm thinking how freedom means different things to different people in different places and times. Can it ever be unfettered, pure? By what standard do we measure it? By what means do we pursue it? Like Africa, it's complicated.

And, oh, yeah- I almost forget to mention that I've also been working! I've had a steady stream of media engagements to help advance my shows in the region- and people are curious about me. It's a big tour, and there is quite a bit of interest in my activities. Cape Town 24 News, the biggest news television/radio/media conglomerate in the Western Cape, have me in for an interview and a live session. They've got a splendid red sofa and the best studio view of the city!

Zone-FM was also cool. I've done this one before. With The Unicorn. Not only does it play locally, but it streams to a large audience of South African ex-pats around the world. Nice to have questions and comments coming in real time from both Europe and Plumbstead! I also do a lengthy session for EYE Radio, a fairly rad, downtown, Cape Town podcaster/broadcaster. This is an interesting, well packaged show, of about forty minutes. Media is changing, and so are the ways in which we interact with it. The Show, a Cape Town printcaster also do an interview. According to Facebook, I've now got more fans and followers in Cape Town than in Toronto. Go figure, eh? Cape Town has, for the most part, treated me really, really well. Nearly every performance is sold to capacity numbers. I'll be back in a couple of months time to try my luck again. It's an interesting scene, and I am impressed almost beyond words with the artists who call this place home, and who have welcomed me into this community.

The Barleycorn is Africa's oldest folk club. I play here because they treat me so well, and because of the storied history of this folk club. I'm in really, really good company on their long list of artists, so it's an honour to play here twice in as many years. I miss the many folk clubs and folk festivals I used to play in North America. My first gigs were in coffeehouses and folk clubs, so there's always a certain comfort and nostalgia that comes with such engagements. Different than the heady, trendy buzz of a massive OppiKoppi or a Glastonbury, but no less satisfying.

The rose lined streets of Rosebank. These roses often carry additional barbs, and are mounted upon truly shocking arbours. Just down this street is one of my favourite, Cape Town venues...

The Alma Cafe has a warm heart inside of it's tough exterior. Actually, one of my favourite rooms anywhere. This is how certain kinds of music and certain kinds of artists should be presented. I won't move on to a larger venue, I'll just book in for more nights. After the Alma, I'm up to Durbanville for a theatre show with Albert Frost. Crazy good. We looked at it as a little warm up for our later shows together, but it was pretty over the top. I wish we'd been able to record some of it. 

Up, over the mountain, for a show on the south side of the peninsula. It's a gorgeous drive up and over this thing, although the road has few places to stop and gawk. Those who live here are used to it, I suppose. Spoiled! Cape Town is certainly one of the prettiest cities in the world.

Tim Parr joins me for the last Cape Town region show on this leg of the Tour. I've missed him! The Gumstone is a beautiful new venue down in surfer territory. As a matter of fact, one of South Africa's best known rock 'n roll surfers also comes out to sit in: Robin Auld. South Africa did not have Jim Morrison, but it did have- and still does have- Robin Auld. I'm decorated with rock and pop royalty here tonight- and we sound great!! I've been looking forward to meeting up with Robin. He's been very helpful in advising me as to certain aspects of my African touring, but as he's on the road constantly, too, it's been hard for us to get into the same room at the same time! A great pleasure. As we did in the Karoo, we end the night with Tim entertaining the after-party by the bonfire. After a lifetime spent as a band leader, he's discovering his freedom as a solo artist, and loving it, and maybe finding his place in this brave new world.

And if you've read this far you may not need the Summary: Last week: several shows in the Cape Town region. Solo, and also with some great South African musicians. Variously, I was joined by Tim Parr, Robin Auld, and Albert Frost. Tim rode shotgun on my run across Hwy 62 to Ladismith, Barrydale, and Ronnies Sex Shop. Albert Frost and I did a little warmup for our upcoming North American tour at Die Boer Theatre in Durbanville. That was one of those blues moments. It wasn't just the quality red wine seeping out of the owner's special collection- although that might of helped. You never know what might wind up on the table in this game. Tim Parr and Robin Auld brought plenty of rock mojo to my Gumstone gig on the south peninsula...

On deck: back across the Karoo to pick up shows in Kimberly, Richmond, Bloemfontein... Into Limpopo and Pretoria by the weekend. I'm self driving another 40 dates across South Africa. Grand and humble: there are some amazing places looming on the schedule. Tin roofs. Dust and diesel. Spook en diesel. Bunnychow. I'll try to talk less and sing more!

Bet you North Americans didn't know that Dan Hill had this African release...