Monday, January 30, 2017

Thrill of the Road

Another year on the open road.

Another year on the River of Life. My 2016, National Steel Zulu Skies Blues Tour was an adventure from beginning to end. Nine Canadian provinces, a bunch of US states, and most of South Africa. A good tour, and one that gives me plenty of ideas as to how my future travels may unfold! My friend James Dean captured this Twin Peaks moment at the recent Canadian, Maple Blues Awards. Deep in the dark woods of the music business, one can never be sure what the next dance will be.

You can follow the 2016 Tour from beginning to end in the posts found below. I will also publish a link to my 2017 plans here (right here), as soon as I have enough details to print. Hint: I came home very tired this year, so it is likely that some regions won't be visited on an annual basis anymore.

Meanwhile, Tour goes on! The Media sidebar to the right has all of the most up to date links for authorized promos, bios, pics, videos, interviews, reviews, etc.– as well as links to the previous decade of blogs for the National Steel Blues Tour. You can read and learn for business or pleasure, or quickly find whatever you need to advance or promote a Doc MacLean show.

Monday, January 16, 2017

It's a Wrap! National Steel Zulu Skies Blues Tour

If you are here for the first time, you probably want to visit the Sidebar (to the right) to start. That's where all the Info and related Links are found. This side is the Tour Blog, a series of personal posts following my 2016, Zulu Skies Blues Tour across North America and South Africa.

The Wrap is generally a lengthy post- a conclusion where I reflect on the annual Tour, the lands, the peoples, the state of the Blues, the art, the artist, the business, what it is to live on the Blues Highway, and where it all seems to be going. This one is pretty much all that. Maybe more of a tour summary than usual, maybe less of a commentary on the business. It's personal, in a public kind of way. About a dozen, shorter posts precede this and follow the Tour from beginning to end. I think they read better. Faster anyway! All are listed at the bottom of the Sidebar.

For this post, pour yourself a coffee, or a glass of red, or maybe a shot of scotch, and get ready for the ride.

A dozen years ago when I started the Blog, the platform was very popular and my Tour Blogs were followed by hundreds– and occasionally by thousands– of people. I used to post daily: from the first Tour announcement to the final accounting. Today, it's mainly a hard core of fans and followers that track the Blog on a regular basis, the rest having migrated to social media platforms where news is given in smaller, more conservative bites. So I post here less often– giving up the Tour in little chunks as it moves across the world. I'm supposed to be working on a book now, so maybe it's more of a journal, a means to collect stories and to remember where I've been and what I felt in the smear of dates and places. An unvarnished, first hand take on this crazy life. It is a crazy life. I live out of a car between six and nine months of every year, and I've done this for longer than I care to admit. Most days I'm playing a show somewhere: as I've become fond of saying, no place too big, too small, too grand or too humble.

This year's National Steel Zulu Skies Blues Tour spanned North America and South Africa. My focus in these closing notes is obviously Africa. While communication has made the world small enough to fit into my laptop, it is also big enough to drive across for months on end. I like that. It's a big, Blues Highway, and perhaps it's a bit of a breakout year for the Tour. I'm not getting any younger, and I'm beginning to recognize that there's probably a limit to how many more times I'm going to be able– or willing– to sleep in Canadian truck stops and parking lots. For the first time, foreign revenues greatly outstripped domestic earnings. For the first time I've considered the possibility that there might not be many more touring years. That thought casts a long and melancholy shadow as I wonder about how to best move forward. Hint: I'm liking the idea of doing it on warm, dry roads.

"Velvet tour," she said. And she was right. What's not to like about forty, mostly sold out, or capacity shows spread across South Africa? My picture in the newspaper, my voice on the drive shows, my image on breakfast television in a million households. A cd release to a new market. My songs on the airwaves. Reception- tour launch concert at the Canadian High Commission in Pretoria. Production sponsorship by profile, name companies. Nearly fifteen thousand kilometres of African highway, self driven, on the left hand side.

Performances: I don't normally review my own shows, so I'll only say that I've been at the top of my game here. I've had great audiences, and they've enabled me to give what were perhaps some of the best shows of my life. Media reviews– of which I will link a few in the sidebar– reflect a genuine excitement and enthusiasm on the ground. Many of the most important South African musicians have come to my shows– some more than once. Some of us have played music together. Now we are friends. Collaborators.

So many new friends! The kind you keep and cherish for life. If there is a theme that has played out during this tour, it is the theme of friendship. Many hands and many hearts make these long, solo tours possible. I try to give as much as I receive, but I don't know if this is remotely possible. My heart pounds for this place: for the rain on the tin roofs, for the cry of the roosters and the ha-de-das, for another glass of South African red, for another look at the crazy, upside down stars. The kind of tour one always wants to have: velvet. My little, Sugarman moment.

I will return. Soon. Repeat engagements offered at all my venues. I'll gladly play most of them again. Significant, African festivals. Collaboration and exchange with some fabulous South African musicians. I should have come here years ago. Africa doesn't puss around. It's flesh and bone. Life and death. Passion. The hustle. I like it here.

One of Africa's larger music chains, Paul Bothner Music, sponsored my production needs in South Africa. You can visit their link in the sidebar, and there is another pic somewhere down the page of their music education centre in Plumstead, Cape Town, one of the locations where where I presented blues masterclasses. Above are the guys who outfitted me at the Centurian outlet, Jean Village Music. Thanks for the extra power cables– I needed them! I've got to extend a big thank you to all the Paul Bothner staff for helping to make the South African leg of the Zulu Skies Tour the success it was. From the Cape Town head office to the managers and staff of the various branches– it was a real pleasure to be associated with this company. Not only was everybody helpful and great to work with, but the stores themselves were friendly, and full of quality gear, and nice to visit.

Paul Bothner reminds me very much of my long time favourite North American music retailer, Long & McQuade. A family based business with happy employees. Great customer service to all customers– not just rock stars. Great gear, and locations across the whole country. It's a company that really gets involved with the communities it's stores are in, too. I respect that. So, yes, this is a plug– I wouldn't follow up this way if I was not impressed. I'm proud to be associated with Paul Bothner Music in South Africa, and I look forward to working with them again in the future.

As a footnote: I had originally approached the Canadian company, Yorkville Sound, about sponsoring a small sound system for this Tour. Typical of so many Canadian businesses, they failed to respond in any way to my proposals. It's not that these companies are too polite to tell you to fuck off, it's that they are too rude to bother. In Canada, most parts of the music business follow this pattern. It's a real time waster for everyone, and it doesn't foster much good will.

If the Yorkville gear was durable enough for an African safari, it would have been pretty exciting to wave the flag for them at the Canadian High Commission, and then across the rest of South Africa. They do make great gear. When I travel, I network, and it's good for everyone. Yes, the Rand is low, but that doesn't stop German, Italian, and English companies from working the South African market. Allen and Heath ended up doing an amazing job for me, ending my career long allegiance to Traynor and Yorkville Sound. Maybe there's a good excuse. Maybe I'll ask again before the next African adventure. I still believe this to be an excellent sales and marketing opportunity for the Ontario based company.

Tim Parr is a storied roots and blues songwriter-guitarist who has had a long history in the South African music scene. He's had some high flying records in this market over the years, and he remains very popular and active as a touring artist today. I was pleased to meet him in Johannesburg, and then to have the opportunity to play with him in Cape Town, in Steve Walsh's Lekker Band.

Charlie King, and Wim Van Vuueren. These folks made my arrival transition so much more manageable. Charlie was one of the people who helped me the most in advance– just knowing she was there and would help answer some of my questions was an encouragement. She's a person who simply goes for it and gets things done. She's been an important organizer of blues people and events in both Cape Town and Johannesburg. I had a really wonderful time hanging out with these guys on their little farm compound, and we had a ball playing a couple of shows together as well. Charlie fronts the band, and Wim drums for a variety of South African blues, roots, and rock artists. After about ten days of being based at their place, it quite felt like home. And I gained a real appreciation for Jack Black beer!

Cliff Central Radio. Shock jock. American style. I had a ball on South Africa's most popular radio show– and it definitely helped put bums in seats. This station has a multi-racial staff, a multi-racial audience, and a cool take on life in South Africa. Very Johannesburg. I think it points the way for where this country is going: a rainbow. Plenty of talents, plenty of smiles. Modern. Worldly. Edge. People listen to this in taxis. Post show I hung out with the producers of the sex hour, and had some zulu language lessons. Nothing I can repeat here!

A great backdrop to my stage at the Cockpit Brewhouse in Cullinan. Yes, to Taste under African skies. I could do that. I am doing that. I am tasting many things, some for the first time.

Cockpit owner, brewmaster, and blues fan Andre de Beer was destined to run a joint like this!

I got more than fifteen minutes of fame as a result of my appearance on Groot's breakfast television/ radio drive show. Getting up with the roosters, and driving unfamiliar roads to find these paces was a little stressful and tiring– but as I told Warren Gibson, my publicist, I came here to work. And work is good. Did it put bums in seats? Absolutely. And I was recognized in gas stations and grocery stores for a few days afterwards. Above, a photo op with Groot morning man Johrne van Huyssteen. He does radio and television at the same time- and in two languages!

My digs in Bronkhorstspruit. An African Shack-Up. Sinkshack. Yes, you do have to go outside to use your cell phone!

Deon is the owner-operator of the Sinkshack, a wild and fun juke joint in Bronkhorstspruit, Gauteng. He's a wild and crazy guy, too. I'll be back.

One of the many, unexplained things I observed in South African bars. Here– from my perspective, in the middle of nowhere– is a row of clocks showing London, Paris, etc. AND Newfoundland, Canada. I did think briefly and fondly of all my friends in Newfoundland as I contemplated the porkbellie salad...

Due to my slow recovery from a springtime injury, I didn't run as much as I would of liked to in Africa. But I did get out fairly often for some shorter, rehab jogs. As luck would have it I met several South African ultra runners, most of whom were sympathetic that I had not been able to do the "little" 50 something km, Ocean to Ocean run this year. I'll be back, but I suspect I'll have to make do with a half marathon. I do have to play shows at night!

The Alternative voice of Johannesburg. Eden Radio. I did the Breakfast Show with Janet Sedgwick, and had a great time. I really do love doing radio!

Stoep, in Nelspruit. Mbombela. Can you say "Mbombela?"

Frans Borman provided me with this shot. A quiet moment with a glass of red as I write my set for the Country and Blues Festival at Johannesburg. It was a real pleasure to be included in the line-up, and it was an opportunity to meet and hear many popular South African blues, roots and rock shows.

Guy Collins was up from Cape Town to perform.

Black Cat Bone. Jacko and the band were really, really helpful to me. Nice guys, and good players who drive a whole lot of kilometres on the South African blues highway.

My pal Louis and his partner Charmyn run Mojo's, down in Welkom, Free State. I had a great time playing this very authentic blues joint. Louis is happier than he looks here!

Here's another great juke, this one outside of Bloemfontein, Free State. Aasvoel Klub.

Hein built this place. Nothing wasted. Always a wild night out.

Heading out to KZN. KwaZulu-Natal.

Caladdi, in the KZN midlands, was a pleasure.

The House at Zululand, Eshowe, KwaZulu-Natal, was an amazing venue. I came back in the daylight to check out the giant, blue-purple lillies.

The Indian Ocean. Mine for the first time. Like an old pirate, I anchor my land ship in a parking lot, pace down through the sand, across the roaring wind, to dip my foot in this warm water. It's a different ocean from the others I have experienced. How could you leave an ocean like this one? I'm on the KZN South Coast. The venue I was to play has lost it's presentation licence and had to close suddenly, so some local musicians have scrambled to set up a replacement show for me. I'm here hours early, so I snooze in my car and listen to the murmur of the waves.

Nearly all of my South African venues met or exceeded my expectations. In the end, there were three venues which proved to be problematic for reasons of closure or management changes. About twice the normally predicted North American percentage for crash and burn, but not a bad ratio for a first venture into new territory. And as it happened, all three nights were quickly filled at alternate venues.

A pleasant evening with local singer-songwriter John Skuy. Sugar cane, pineapples, the soft crash of the ocean behind the stage. Red wine in buckets. Very nice.

Africa's Highway 61. I'm reminded that traveling alone in a car full of gear, lacking a spare, may not be a good idea. It's a rough and tumble road through to the Wild Coast.

It's market day in the little villages, and the streets throng with people. Speakers blasting, walking into traffic, riding in open bakkies. Pot holes. Too fast. Too slow. There's not much shoulder next to the pavement. If you drop a wheel off the crumbled blacktop you could roll your car. I almost do that. I'm ok. I'm ok. Now I'll hug that centre line like everyone else. I'll take whatever road is available and use it for my own. It all could of ended here, quickly, at the twist of a wheel. A little bit of luck, and a little bit of skill. Sooner or later you run out of one or the other.


Warren "Dog" Gibson runs Plug Music. Highly recommended to me by several South African artists of stature, he did not disappoint. As publicist for the South African leg of the National Steel Zulu Skies Blues Tour, he did a brilliant job. I told him that I came here to work, and he surely kept me busy– while bringing considerable profile to the Tour. I'm pretty sure he's going to be a permanent part of my team. I enjoyed working with him, and it was great knowing that he was there for me. There is a link to Plug Music in the media sidebar of this Blog.

Why wouldn't you book a Tuesday night in a place called "The Goat Shed?"

And now, the Karoo. While I anticipated each new geographical area, the Karoo desert was a place I very much looked forward to experiencing. Deserts, as I have learned, are places to expect the unexpected, places where the strange and unusual are the norm.

I'm headed for what's been described to me as a "small drinking town with a farming problem." Nieu-Bethesda. I'm feeling relaxed, driving under big skies, my Africa relaxing with me now. There are ranches out here in the endless spaces– or maybe farms, or estates. I'm not sure what they are called, but they are far apart, and seem far from wealthy. A hard life, I'd think. But I've met characters like this before in the American south-west. It takes a special sort, to make a life in an area like this one. Beautiful. Silent. Unforgiving. Deadly. The freedom of isolation. The madness of it all. Over my six hours of driving, I see almost no one. This road is mine for a fleeting time, and I'm comforted by the feeling that I am probably as free and as mad as anybody else under these skies.

Prince Albert.

And then, Tulbagh.

Mr. Cat and the Jackal, a popular Cape Town band performed here last night. They are still doing breakfast on the balcony as I arrive to load in for my show. Persuaded that a little breakfast beer might be nice, I join the young animals for conversation. A musician social. Owner Chris Grobler joins us, and it's a pleasant hour spent before I need to set up.

But the real buzz today is that Doc MacLean and Albert Frost may play together here. I've heard this rumour myself. A number of people around South Africa have worked hard to arrange this introduction– Chris Grobler among them. Selfishly, they operated on the expectation that these artists would click and create some fabulous music. Doc MacLean, meet Albert Frost. I guess you've got guitars in the car, Albert?

Really, from my point of view, one of nicest things to come out of the Tour. I can count on one or two hands the musicians that can sit in with me, any place any time, and bring effortless greatness, joy, warmth, and passion to what I do. Albert is one of them. I feel like we have known each other for years. I expect we'll be friends for the rest of our lives. And I'm a big Albert Frost fan. One of Africa's major talents.

Chris is another guy I felt as though I'd known for ever. I had an amazing day hanging out with him and Albert, playing records, driving around. Chris has a jaw-dropping record collection. Many rare LPs. Somebody was onto the good stuff when the early re-issues began to come out. I was taken back to the massive record collection Colin Linden and I shared many years ago, courtesy of David Wilcox. It was a thrill to see some of these rare albums again, and to play them nice and loud!

Bound for the Garden Coast, another quintessential South African landscape.

I was able to spend some time with Marcia Moon, recently relocated from Pretoria to Betty's Bay. One of my favourite contemporary, South African singer-songwriters, she's a tough guitar player, tough singer, and a smart composer. She's got lots of content and knows how to put it across. I think North American audiences are going to like her a lot.

Gysie manages the bar and the stage tech at the PeriScope Theatre. A true, beard brother!

Before turning the wheels toward Cape Town, I stop to visit a nearby penguin colony. I've never seen penguins in the wild before. So, ok, they stand around quite a bit. Actually that's most of what they do. And they smell. Not nice. Not smart. She's laughing at him, and he's humping a rock. Penguins. Check. Been there, seen that. Next! Outta here. Where's Cape Town?

Bill Knight is a storied, South African singer-songwriter. North Americans will know what I mean when I say he reminds me somewhat of Tony Bird. There's not much room for pretenders here in South Africa. People have been through a lot, and often it's pretty close to the surface. Passion. Real stories. Close t the heart. The white bread has long since been stolen and eaten, washed down with blood, or red wine, or both. Guitars are not delicate, nor are the people who play them.

Bill was one of the people I first talked to when I was developing the Zulu Skies Tour. He's run The Cottage, a legendary Cape Town folk/roots club for many years– and I had it in my sights as being one of the best folk venues in Africa. I was not disappointed. I had a wonderful night, and I loved the room.

Here's the music education room at Paul Bothner Music in Plumstead, Cape Town.

That's Albert Frost on the left- dressed up to look like Dave Clarke! Are you folks old enough to remember the Dave Clarke Five?

My pal Gavin McKeller kindly provided the nicer images of the Alma Cafe seen below. Two, sold out shows here. The Alma, and all of my Cape Town region shows, were quite wonderful. Great audiences, great sound, great hospitality.

The Flame was a soul and rock band from Durban, South Africa. The band was founded in 1963 by guitarist Steve Fataar, above. I was thrilled and honoured that he came out to a couple of my shows. His original band included bassist Endries Fataar, drummer George Faber, and guitarist Eugene Champion. Eventually brother Ricky Fataar took on the drum throne, and Blondie Chaplin joined as lead singer and guitarist. This combo attracted the attention of Al Jardine and Carl Wilson who brought them to California to record for the Beach Boys label, Brother. Plenty of great soul and rock recordings, and the launching pad for the amazing voice and guitar playing of Blondie Chapman. Eventually Blondie and Ricky joined the Beach Boys, while Steve returned to South Africa. Today members of the band continue to work with Brian Wilson and with the Rolling Stones. Amazing records. YouTube up the Flame, and then Blondie Chapman with Paul Butterfield... I did this and spent a couple of days listening to some great soul records I had never heard before, most of them anchored by Steve Fataar. Steve can still be heard playing shows up and down the coast between Durban and Cape Town. Deep roots.

I took an afternoon and visited Mandela's cell on Robbin Island.

Albert Frost joined me for a sold out show at Die Boer Theatre in Durbanville.

Tech set up at the Mercury Club, Cape Town.

The media campaign continued through every region. I was interested to see that Zone Radio listeners messaged in from around the world during my visit there. As more media is streamed over the internet, one finds that they are sometimes reaching unexpected audiences in unexpected places. I was plugging my Cape Town shows, while listeners in Britain and Holland were asking questions. Did this put bum in seats at my Cape Town shows? All sold out or at standing capacity, so who knows? I also had support from traditional print media.

And then there's the ragged, crazed, and dangerous underbelly of it all. The invisible Tour of Despair and Determination. The character building moments carefully omitted from the daily rushes to social media. The reckless underpinnings of this impeccably planned undertaking.

What sort of fool would arrive in Africa all but penniless, with all credit cards overdrawn, and nothing in the bank? After the worst Canadian tour of the past twelve years, I wasn't going to give up on the African leg of Zulu Skies. I'd already paid my airfare, my car, and my South African cell phone on those credit cards! My last act in Canada was to deposit the entire, meagre earnings of the western tour into my credit card accounts. I knew the car hire would be requiring a major damage deposit on pick-up, and I wanted to make sure there was headroom. And so the adventure began.

Card declined. The bank had not processed my deposit yet. We cannot rent you the car, Sir. Forty-five minutes of international phone time to Mastercard in Canada. They reluctantly agree to raise my limit and put it through. Ten minutes later I'm self-driving on the wrong side of the road– I mean the Left side of the road– flying out of the parking lot onto the busy N-1 highway. Johannesburg. I'll quickly learn about potholes. I destroy a wheel and two tires within the hour. That takes the shine off my potential earnings. Within a day I've learned not to stop for red lights or stop signs. Within a week I've learned how to bribe a police officer.

None of the South African banks will let me make payments to any of my credit cards, or otherwise wire funds to my Canadian bank. After six weeks the card companies have brought their collection agencies in– guys who phone all day every day. And I'm in Africa! All cards are cut off entirely. My bank has overdrafted me so that my line of credit won't swallow my house. And here, in Africa, I've got a duffle bag with a hundred thousand useless rand in it. I feel like Chuck Berry. Driving around with a car full of money. No bank. Soon I'll need a bigger car with a bigger boot. I have a money problem.

Then, of course, the Poisoning. After the show illustrated above, I went to my room and drank water to disasterous effect. A harrowing, week long ordeal from the TransSky to a bed in a Cape Town hospital. What would a Tour be without multiple, near death experiences? If I was a cat, I would have been dead a long time ago. As it is, I've survived to tour again. Or at least I haven't died on the Tour. Yet. I'd like to postpone that as long as possible.

Did I mention that this Tour was, as all my tours are, entirely self-funding? Self-driven. Non-funded. It's been very successful in developing channels for actual cultural and market exchange between South Africa and Canada. As the American border tightens and the EU becomes more difficult, this relationship will be of increasing importance, and may lead the way to other trade and commerce between our two countries.

A last thanks to everyone involved on the ground. You know who you are! Again, these Tours are always the work of many hands: many small– and sometimes not so small things– keep this adventure rolling. And I never forget that. To everyone else, thanks so much for following along on this landmark Tour. Zulu Skies! I'm back in Canada to attend the Maple Blues Summit and the Maple Blues Awards. Meanwhile I'm making the rounds of doctors and clinics to follow up on my poisoning and subsequent illness, jogging slowly every day, and changing a couple of strings to get ready for the upcoming year. I hope to see you out there on the Blues Highway.