By BRUCE DENNILL
Rock On The Lawns featuring The Pixies / Carnival City, Johannesburg
Another weekend, another music festival? South Africa has an ever-growing roster of such events – indeed, the Johannesburg leg of Rock On The Lawns took place on the same weekend as MieliePop in Mpumalanga – not too many of which last for more than two or three years in a row.
Amp Events’ Rock On The Lawns (more rocks than lawns, in terms of the terrain) may fare better, largely because it’s focused. It’s a single day – one in Cape Town; one in Johannesburg, and it’s only rock, putting big South African bands on the same stage with an iconic international outfit as a marketing drawcard, based on the smaller number of chances most punters will have to see the latter live.
Sales figures and radio play bely the enduring popurity of rock music as a live drawcard and what promoter Andrew Mac has paid tribute to with this event is the quality of bands coming out of Johannesburg, Stellenbosch, Cape Town and, er, Witbank. For some strange reason, there’s still a mindset in this country that an artist you may be able to see at a nearby park or bar can’t have world-class talent because of their accessibility.
It makes no sense – aptitude has no link to geography.
The line-up prior to The Pixies arriving on stage could have held its own anywhere in the world: the Orianthi strut of Natasha Meister and the rest of The Sweet Resistance; the Vampire Weekend guitar whorls and hipster cheekiness of Shortstraw; the Blink182 punk-pop and massive bass power of CrashCarBurn; the Kings Of Leon melodies-plus-vocal-chops of aKing; the chunky Three Doors Down consistency of Prime Circle; and the, yes, Pixies-ish mix of concept alternative punk and the occasional epic delivered by the Springbok Nude Girls. This concert was a celebration of good rock music before Black Francis and company began their set.
The Sweet Resistance were the newest and least known of the outfits on the bill, but are clear future frontrunners, with a big, tight sound driven by Natasha Meister’s penetrating vocals and captivating guitar work. Shortstraw made what they do look ridiculously easy, which it patently isn’t, while CrashCarBurn remain an excellent singles band – Serenade hasn’t aged at all – who deserve more widespread credit for their craft. aKing are swaggering classic rockers in thirty-something bodies and Prime Circle have, without taking any giant leaps forward, remained excellent performers for years.
The Springbok Nude Girls were, to begin with, disappointing, as their heavily compressed sound sucked much of the emotion out of their performance. Once the sound was tweaked later in the set, matters improved, though their impact is (understandably, given that they only play together intermittently nowadays) much reduced relative to their early days.
Finally, the Pixies, wordlessly emerged and began without preamble or banter of any kind, playing five songs in 10 minutes before Francis Black even verbally acknowledged the presence of the crowd. They were efficient and authoritative, rattling off track after track, while back-lit by the stage lighting, purposefully depicted (for much of the time) as silhouettes rather than as personalities. Drummer David Lovering is metronomic at the level of a Charlie Watts, the foundation for everything the band does.
A couple of times, the crowd mistook an intro for one of the handful of songs they’ve spent the day waiting for – Where Is My Mind or Gigantic, say – and cheered loudly, only to settle down again as it became clear that it was just a similar intro. This confirmed the Pixies’ status as a permanently, properly “alternative” band – popular and influential, but still a niche concern that simply isn’t accessible in the same way many similar-sounding acts are.