By BRUCE DENNILL
Doc MacLean – N’ganga Blues Tour / Frank’s Wild Years, Norwood, Johannesburg
Delta bluesman Doc MacLean has an air of mystery about him, with his profile built on extensive touring – this Johannesburg date was one of 60 stops on this South African tour (his fourth in the country) – rather than any more contemporary type of marketing. As such, anything you might infer about him will likely be gleaned through his songs, played mostly on a National steel guitar played left-handed with Robert Johnson-style picking and a slide worn permanently on the little finger of his right hand.
For this show, MacLean was joined by old friend Tim Parr, who trades in rock and folk-tinged pop along with his own blues influences, and Penny Levi on bass and backing vocals. There is a clear affinity between the two men, and their enjoyment of each others’ company and of playing together seemed as much a reason for the show as the small but enthusiastic crowd who arrived to watch.
Parr’s solo material – he’s not treated as a support act, but incorporated into each set – is great, his atypical melodies propelled by a percussive guitar style that makes his sound larger than expected given that it is only him and Levi contributing too it (MacLean sits in on a couple of tunes, but makes relatively low-ley contributions). When MacLean and his songs become the focus, however, the decision to not allow a space to hear his playing and lyrics in isolation feels like a bit of a missed opportunity, with the relatively busier sound of Parr’s guitar somewhat obscuring MacLean’s picking patterns. Happily, the headliner’s voice – a convincing, clear baritone – cuts through clearly, ensuring that the mood of the meandering tales his multi-verse songs is communicated, even if the craft of his intricate playing is not as well presented as it might have been.
Late on, he casually mentions “wandering down to Son House’s place” and having a chat with that legendary figure, and this hint at the richness of MacLean’s experience suggests another area – anecdotes about genre superstars and the like – that might be better explored with relatively fewer distractions.