By BRUCE DENNILL
Uptown Rhythm Dogs with special guests Zacas / Auto & General Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg
It doesn’t seem possible, but the Uptown Rhythm Dogs have been making music together on and off for nearly 40 years. There are streaks of grey in the ponytails of percussionist Dan Chiorboli and anything-with-strings player Greg Georgiades – and vocalist, guitarist and pianist Neill Solomon has long lost all of his hair – but the onstage energy and chemistry remains fresh. This two-night theatre residency was something of a reunion in the wake of the release of The Songs That Made Us Free by The Liberation Project, a sprawling collaborative project including 142 international musicians that yielded a triple album and a series of concerts – for all of which Solomon and Chiorboli served as producers as well as contributing writing and playing.
The relatively intermittent nature of their current musical relationship was occasionally evident in some loose tracking of the melody on the bass (or more specifically, a bass ukulele), but with there being a fair bit of improvisation in these players’ approach, it was only a few discordant moments that jarred. The music – world music, tinged with folk and with sporadic moments of more conventional pop) and the arrangements are complex, even in the more mainstream moments, with multiple and often unexpected key changes and Chiorboli and Georgiades’ bewildering array of instruments (any number of drums and shakers; a bouzouki, a banjo and an oud among many others) holding audience interest as they are played, offering fascinating colour and texture to the compositions.
Through all of that, Solomon’s expressive, unusual voice (a more tuneful Leonard Cohen?) remains an obvious point of focus as he tells tales that generally involve at least a touch of darkness. Even a tune he introduces as a “love song” is revealed to be less than romantic, as confirmed by the title – Junk Foods And Disposable Ladies.
Still, the combination of long-honed chops and confident affability makes an evening in the company of this trio a tremendously enjoyable time.
The Uptown Rhythm Dogs were supported by folk duo Zacas – brothers Luigi and Salvatore Zacas, the former singing lead and the latter playing guitar and singing harmonies – who took the opportunity to make a number of new fans in an audience there to see the elder band. Salvatore’s picked melodies are clear, cascading and lyrical, with no concessions made to simplicity as he also varies between time signatures and picking patterns. Luigi’s vocals are strong and earnest and, though the duo’s inter-song banter is charmingly haphazard, the stories their songs tell are poetic and powerful. It is folk music in the potent, old-fashioned sense, needing nothing more than the brothers offer – interesting, well-delivered lyrics, beautifully sung by both of them and backed by an acoustic instrument played with skill and imagination.