Saturday, May 3, 2014

Zen and The Art of Facemelting

The weekly column on South African bands and live shows.
 by Omri Ismail Cassiem

Show this week: Burning Blue @ Rumour Lounge

This week I bring you an epic love poem disguised as a review. Roses are red violets are blue… Nope, what do you take me for? A Beiber fan? You see readers, I got into this industry because of my love of music. It at some points of my life is my only friend, the only thing that keeps me grounded. When dark clouds are circling above my head (nowadays they literally do. Thanks climate change! You took my beautiful Johannesburg and turned it into a cold miserable place!) the sweet sounds of Slash making his guitar sing pierces the damp mood like a ray of sunshine. And when I’m in the zone, shooting sparks from my eyes and seeing the matrix, well like everyone who has lost their teeth to too much sugar and not enough oral hygiene thought: you can’t get too much of a good thing. To this day whenever I feel like having a spiritual experience, Evanescence’s ‘The Open Door’ is my opening into the world of pure boundless energy. 

That being said, live music is very much a mixed bag, because the second you get people involved things tend to go pear-shaped very quickly (must be because of those emotions I hear so much about. I wouldn’t know; I sold my soul a long time ago for a box of Marlboro Reds) or once in a while the earth is at the exact angle to the sun and the moon, and Alpha Centauri is out in the night sky in all its potential alien race glory, that is when things come together. The lighting is just right and the stage is perfectly set up for musicians to have the right amount of movement. The crowd is the right amount of drunk (you know the kind, tipsy, but the magical powers of the kungfu masters that brandy seems to evoke in people hasn’t set in just yet) and the sound engineer is doing his job well. Then, and only then, the world seems to be right. It all makes sense. The vibrating energy that is the universe becomes one, and everything is calm… Until the double bass pedals burst through your bubble and the lead guitar invades your temple of Zen with face melting brilliance and just when you think it can’t get any better an angel descends into your serenity with his incredible post-grunge melodic voice, and you are forever changed. 

One of the Beetles once said that one good show can change the world. This wasn’t that show, but in the midst of one the best shows I have ever seen I saw the beginnings of something. It was there like the few sparks on a pile of tinder clinging to life so that they may create a bush fire. Yes there were a few mistakes here and there, the lead singer missed a few notes and there was an awkward pause right before their last song after an epic build-up, and their set was like a hipsters fashion sense, that is: mismatched but colourful. 

But let’s take into consideration their music piece by piece. The rhythm section for a band is like the foundation of a house: if it isn’t solid all you are left with is a pile of broken dreams and some massive debt. Burning Blue has a stellar rhythm section with Ryan Greenwood on drums and Cheynne Holloway on bass. The musical interaction between these two is one born of many years of camaraderie, and that translates into a rock-solid foundation (pun completely unintended) for the other two members of the band to stand on. As far as drummers go, Ryan is very much a triple threat, not only showing an incredible ability on the drums but also being able to play the guitar and at some points even take over the lead vocals. That, added with piercing blue eyes and a very easy going manner, all equate to something you can never teach in a classroom, or for that matter find on a reality TV show: true star quality.

Bass players are often overlooked in most bands because the lead singer shares the stage with them, but when you have a tiny blonde bombshell on stage with a voice many times larger than her little body should be able to produce, it is really difficult to overlook her. Cheynne Holloway is the trump card of backup singers, and she can play the bass guitar. 

What more can you ask for? South Africa’s very own mixture of Herman Lee and Slash shredding his guitar? Delivered. Seriously, there were some points in the show where I swear I heard his strings saying ‘he does it cause he loves us’. All non-PC jokes aside, Stephen Greenwood is a mad genius, capable of melting your face off in one song then making you want to go steady in another song. All of that and vocal harmonies you say? Starting to get the picture as to why I love the band? 

Those three on their own are all capable of not only killing it on their respective instruments but also all three are very capable singers, which makes Hunter McWilliam all the more impressive for taking lead in the singing with his voice which sounds like the prodigy love child of Kurt Corban and Sean Morgan with a rough gravely texture underneath his silky high notes. A disconcerting yet seductive sound in all 50 shades of rock (that one was intentional!). 

What this band did the best in their show is one thing that people tend to overlook when on stage, that is crowd interaction. Every stage of the show it felt like I was a part of it. I didn’t feel like I was in a zoo looking into other beings’ lives; I was a part of the show the entire time. Even though it was a relatively small stage to a little over 50 people, they played as if they were at the Greek in front of untold masses, yet somehow managed to make it feel like you were having a beer with mates in a garage while they polished their set. 

A definitive moment for me in the show was right before they played their encore… Let me actually caveat this by saying that talented people are awesome, but talented prima donnas… They are the salt of the earth. Okay if I like your music cool, good for you but there is absolutely no reason to think that you fart rainbows because you have a few fans. With that off my chest back to the story: right before they played their encore the lead guitarist said, ‘I can’t deny a request that I started’ and that really sums up this band. The fact that they can morph from 4 high school friends into these bigger than life rock gods on stage yet still manage to remain sincere and grounded throughout the show, speaks of a maturity far outweighing their talents (which in case you haven’t been reading are immense). That dear readers is Burning Blue for you.

I have been to concerts before where the bands on stage have been overhyped to the point of false-idol worship. Where, if the rumours are to be believed, cancer would be cured simply by watching this band live. Then you get there ready to grow 3 feet taller and have your endocrine system completely overloaded with feel good hormones. But all you see is an above average band with a little gimmick here and there but not enough music cohesion between the members to write anything of note, or enough skill in the individual musos to even perform a decent cover of anything. And all you feel is, meh. This is not the case with Burning Blue: their laid back attitude and continual commitment to performing as close to a perfect set as humanly possible has led them to never disappoint a single new fan. 

OK now that my undying love has been printed in words let’s get to the nitty-gritty of it. The show was skilfully sound engineered by Ashley the resident sound guy at Rumours. The lighting was a visceral showing of what happens when a lighting technician listens to the band beforehand and is inspired to improve the music by adding to it rather than trying to show off his own abilities. The band’s stage presence was great, with a few hiccups here and there but never anything you actually noticed unless you, like me, watched them with a hawk eye. Burning Blue is one of my top-rated South African bands by far and I would definitely recommend going to see them live, but only if you enjoy music made with hard work and legitimate talent. For the Beiber fans out there I’m sorry, stay home and catch up on some Jersey Shore. But hey, if you are reading this I’m sure you enjoy seeing artists touching the divine with their hard fought-for abilities, so by all means make it your mission to go see them live before they break and standing tickets cost both an arm and a leg.