Review: Restless Natives, Armchair Theatre, Cape Town, 21 Feb 2008
I may be destined to conduct most my conversations about music with taxi drivers in Cape Town. Not only has every driver I’ve met come from a traditional music background, they ask questions! There are few musicians I’ve met in Cape Town that have inquired about my own work. Once I’m gone, and if they’re curious, they may find a fraternity of taxi drivers who have some insight to a swag of my interests, work practices and humble achievements.
That aside, I want to spend the rest of these moments we have together to share with you my experience of the South African free jazz group, Restless Natives. I had it on good authority that their performance at the Armchair Theatre in Observatory, Cape Town, on the night of the 21st of Feb, was not to be missed and I can assure you, would not be forgotten!
The Armchair Theatre is a rather informal venue with little seating, but plenty of floor space for squatting and a foosball table that got a fair bit of use. I was advised by the bar staff that the band would start at 10. I’d been in Observatory since 6, so by 9:55 I was pretty eager to have my ears done in. The conversation around me was stifling to say the least.
Sure enough, at 10pm, the Restless Natives took to the stage and got stuck into the business of being restless and relentless from start to finish. It was exhilarating!
Chris Engle, sporting an afro, spat, spluttered, blew his sax like the roaring 40s! Then he’d bury himself in his instrument, hunched over it, furiously pumped like a bush-fire out of control… He played his baritone as hard and as emphatic as his mainstay, the alto. I’m told a new addition to the group, he sounded as if he’d been a part of the action for a good many years. Certainly essential to the overall vitality of this raw, effusive sound I was copping!
Lee Thomson on brass was rather reminiscent of the great Miles, in terms of tone and the technique he employed, clear to me that through all this he was charting his own map, his own voice through these now familiar techniques. Entirely individual none-the-less. Certainly far more engaging than one or two of the brass players that marched in and out of Sydney’s Freeboppers in the mid-1980’s.
Shane Cooper, the double-bass player, who incidentally wrote much of this evening’s tunes, and despite the dread-locks that tended to dominate rather than his playing at first, displayed an outstanding range of skills, temperament and taste for such a young player. His playing was invigorating… he would walk you through a garden of the most astonishing display of colour and texture and then race you dizzy through the crazed streets of Dhaka – from tulips to rickshaw! And was that a drum-stick he was using as a kind of bow or mallet?
The pianist, Jason Reolon, considered one of the best of a new crop of musicians in the country, his voice snaked upward and through me shimmering in the last three pieces; Eclipse (a piece by the drummer, Kesivan Naidoo, and somewhat reminiscent of Night in Tunisia), Prodigal Son and the final piece performed for the encore. In the latter I found myself literally swimming in his rich and complex melodies and syncopated chord shifts… they were indeed gorgeous moments.
Finally, but not least, the amazing and much respected Kesivan Naidoo. Despite the expertise displayed by everyone else on stage, it was Naidoo who held the entire performance together by providing with that extra power that comes from someone who just drives you to perform and outperform to your extreme best. He just made everyone far more powerful!
His enthusiasm for each piece and every player was evident in his consistent drive, the tension that would give way to every accent, constantly building each piece with endless reserves of energy and ideas that had him at one stage standing he was so excited, whacking his kit with precision and enthusiasm, rolling over his toms with guts and fury… cymbals like a sand storm against glass… he was just incredible, his head moving from left to right over a body that seemed too close to his kit. Whether big or small, from where I sat, he dominated his drums, calling his tribe to furious restlessness.
Not since some of the last live gigs I’d seen of the Freeboppers had I experienced anything of equal intensity as I had with the Restless Natives. With a recording session and album to follow, I hope they don’t lose the energy they consume live in the studio as did the Freeboppers when they released their disappointing double-album. But by that stage they’d lost their drummer, Greg Sheehan, who like Naidoo, was integral to groups’ dynamism and overall brain-mash potential. Still, as someone once said, studio recording or not, “Mark [Simmonds] tears the arse out of the saxophone”.