By BRUCE DENNILL
The Shabs: Can You Hear Us At The Back Album Launch / Rumours Lounge, Strydom Park, Johannesburg
Regional music scenes tend to be pretty insular, so it’s refreshing when bands from Johannesburg and Cape Town not only complement each other on stage, but take that relationship further and release recorded material together. Such is the connection between folk-punk favourites Rambling Bones and relative (they’re already touring veterans) newcomers The Shabs (from the Mother City), who deal in the same vague genre, but with slightly different influences.
So it follows naturally – in community terms – that the Bones would happily play the opening slot in a four-band line-up to celebrate the launch of The Shabs’ new album, Can You Hear Us At The Back. In one sense, that’s a brave move for the Capetonians, because Rambling Bones is an effortlessly world-class live band. Frontman JP Du Preez is a loose-limbed, gurning, calmly confident performer who makes you laugh as you sing along or pogo in front of the stage – the immediate and enthusiastic reactions of the bulk of the evening’s audience. The rhythm section of Leighton Powell on drums and Eric Wright on bass are brilliantly solid while still playing with plenty of flair, and backing vocalist Andie De Klerk also adds animated harmonica and melodica to the mix. If this quartet ever tour with The Lumineers, expect a bucket-list concoction of superb songwriting, natural musicianship and folk-influenced melodies.
Next up were fellow Capetonians and long-term friends of The Shabs, West Coast Wolves. Also a quartet on the night (their website suggests a fifth member), they are more of a stand and deliver affair, offering heavier grooves that recall, to some extent, the early sound of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And there’s a little of the Californians’ nuttiness in rhythm guitarist/banjo player Pete Grey, who performs in long-johns and a beanie.
Next up is Cockles, the side-project of Shortstraw singer Alastair Thomas. Unsurprisingly, this new band shares much of the cheerful goofiness of that outfit, with the songs dealing lyrically with everyday superficialities, but couching them in catchy melodies performed with a great deal of charm by the charismatic Thomas (if you haven’t seen him on stage, picture Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee Lewis in the film Great Balls Of Fire; slightly manic, but with a smooth assurance that is supported by the tempo and tone of the songs.
As a platform on which to then build, these collective sets might intimidate a band anything less than positive that they know how to deliver at a similar level. The Shabs have no qualms about keeping up, with an interesting line-up that includes a double-bass and a pedal steel, all driven by Jon Case’s busy but metronomic drumming. Singer Jon Shaban sounds gentler than he looks (he’s a big, bearded guy) and, though there is plenty of Flogging Molly-esque pace and vigour in the arrangements, his vocals are clean and relatively high, adding a hint of the Avett Brothers or The Decemberists – or even the Barenaked Ladies, when taking the humour in the lyrical content into account – to his band’s offering.
The songs are consistently strong, with delivery to match (the pedal steel adds a wonderfully rich element), and, though The Shabs were away from home, the partisan crown showed how effective their music has been in establishing their reputation outside of the Cape.
This gig confirmed the quality and popularity of The Shabs (and their collaborators), rather than serving to simply announce a new product – encouraging stuff for new and old fans, and for cynics rightly disillusioned by the same-old, same-old malaise of general middle-of-the-road pop.