Friday, December 23, 2016


I made it home. Alive. I don't feel very strong, and I'm tired, but I made it! Toronto, Canada. I'm reunited with The Big Lincoln. She's so fine! All of my gear arrived intact, and quickly found it's way into familiar places. I'm resting for a few days. Seeing a few doctors. Sleeping. It's a quiet town close to some big highways and an airport. The longer I'm here, the more I think about the big highways and the airport. Africa! It was a great Tour, under Zulu Skies. Forty shows! And, of course nine Canadian provinces and over a hundred concerts at the front end of it all. Possibly the longest tour I've ever done. I'm sorry I missed Newfoundland and the Yukon this time around.

I'll take a couple of weeks to wrap the details of the 2016, National Steel Zulu Skies Blues Tour. Then I'll attend the Maple Blues Summit and the Maple Blues Awards. By the end of the month I'll be announcing my plans for the upcoming year. Expect: recording, writing, and some interesting shows. The Tour will definitely return to South Africa. Details to follow! But first– laundry.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Rough Exit

The maybe three and a half hour drive from Knysna to Cape Town takes maybe ten hours. I'm stopping and sleeping and trying to drink water. Chocolate milk. Juice. It's all awful. Google leads me into town through a tangled maze of places I should not be driving. Really should not be driving. But I really should not be driving anyway. This is now a haze, a dream-like state. I'm straining to focus on driving. I keep following the blue dot. I've called ahead. Arriving, my world quickly fades.

I remember handing over the keys to my car. "Don't worry, Doc, we'll take care of you." I remember talking to a doctor. Arriving at a hospital. Waking up on a table with an IV in my arm. "You've had two litres, so far. How are you feeling?" I'm not sure if I had been unconscious, or dreaming, or out of my mind. But yes, I felt better. My mouth felt wet. A couple hours later I felt hungry. In the morning I had my first cup of coffee in a week. My first slice of toast. I had been near death, with all systems beginning to shut down. The hospital wants to keep me, but I've got a PA to return, a car to drop off, a train to catch, and a flight booked to get me home for Christmas. They give me an IV cocktail of antibiotics, a massive prescription, and wish me luck. Rescued by the grace of a friend. Given a few more hours on my own, this tour would probably have ended forever.

With some difficulty I navigate the summer heat, and return my sound gear to Paul Bothner Music. My small PA feels enormous and heavy as I move it, one piece at a time, from my car to the loading area. I'm reminded of times past when this gear was bigger, and heavier, and I had to load and unload an equipment trailer after every show. I'm glad when the job is done. And very, very tired.

The Lux, running from Cape Town to Johannesburg. A fine train with staterooms, chefs and white linens.

It's 10:30 in the morning. Already the state workers in their uniforms have taken to sleeping in the bushes. Soaking up shade wages in the heat of the African mid-summer. Well, what else would they do here in the long heat of the African day? The sheer volume of miniscule tasks will never be done.

A burning land begging for water. Displacement. Residue of old shelters once built, once lived in, gone now. Broken glass and a few bricks vanishing into the rippling heat. Why would one stop here? What were their hopes and dreams? Was there a hope, a dream, any reason at all? Or no hope, no dreams, just walking, walking, walking, until disappearing away away into the faded colours of high summer. Anyone could disappear here. You don't have to be special. The sun is a great equalizer, and gives no mercy.

The train is, the conductor says, only about four hours behind schedule. I've written in an extra ten hours between the Johannesburg train station and the airport, so I'm not worried. African time. You've got to learn to gracefully wedge it into other zones, other schedules. Propped on pillows, I drink water and watch the landscape drift past. African rails run over cement ties, so the ride is a little rough and grinding. Rough and grinding. Rough and grinding. I had no idea that the locomotive itself was failing– finally grinding to a rough halt on a desert spur...

And now, "Oh, Mr. MacLean! We've had a problem with one of our locomotives. We will use an old one to push it to the next station, and get a man to try and fix it there." Suddenly my ten hours have been transformed, and I remain suspended in African time.

Me and all my gear. The heat rising in thick, shimmering waves outside. Recklessly, I bribe the porter to get me off the train. I should be in hospital, recovering, taking my meds. Instead I'm standing railside with a giant, wheeled bag I can barely move. Inside it: my guitars, my money, my laptop, my material world. It's just 250 km to the airport, and I could still make my flight to Munich. After reaching the nearest road, I begin a series of wild, local taxi rides.

I arrive at the airport an hour late. South African Airways are very helpful and sympathetic. "We can get you on the same flight in 24 hours, and you can make the same connection. There are seats available, and it costs exactly the same." All I have to do is get my travel agent to call them and roll the date forward.

My travel agent is a company called, and it turns out there is no way to reach them on line for customer service. I've got to phone them in North America, from the ticket counter in South Africa. This I do, and I'm put on hold for over 30 minutes until the international call time runs out, and the call is disconnected. Moments later my phone's battery hits zero as well. This is a pattern which will be repeated several times over the next 18 hours as I purchase and use hundreds of rand worth of airtime, exhaust it, exhaust the batteries of my phone, and bribe the cleaner guy to let me recharge it in his office. Finally I get a guy who says OK, it's taken care of, but I'll need to pay them a surcharge of $800 to make it happen. For the flight that costs exactly the same.

I sink into my seat, asleep before the wheels have said good-bye to Africa.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Backswing: Desert to Coast. Near Death in the TransSky

I'm coming to love this desert-like area. I'm heading out of Cape Town after a great run of shows. The road is relaxed, and neatly opens up before me. Unfolding. The big version of my little maps. I know where I'm going now, and I've seen some of these roads before. I've got water, I've got time. It's a nice ride. Did I mention I bought a new tire?

I'm headed back into the Karoo, or more properly, the TransSky region. I've got two nights of shows at the Karoo Art Hotel in Barrydale. This is a gorgeous, beautifully detailed and restored building dating to the 1800s. The rooms are wonderful. The grounds welcoming. I'm going to stay on here for a day or two after my show.

Purple trees. I thought this was a spring display, but perhaps they bloom later at this elevation. Mid-summer now, and no longer cool in the daytime. At night, the winds do come up. Perfect for porching, or for sleeping.

My room looks out across the valley. I plan on sitting here writing songs- and working on this blog- for the next three days. Then I've got two more show dates to wrap the Tour. This is my first block of down time over the Tour, and I'm quite looking forward to it. I've met some great local folks, I love the hotel. Nice to be in one place for just a little while.

I've been looking for hydro insulators. My pal, Morgan Davis collects these, and I hope to bring him one from South Africa. But these are not glass, and they are not pretty. Grey-brown ceramic lumps. I'm told that they are all imported from somewhere. I can't seem to find a loose one anywhere, anyway...

Who would of guessed? A moment of inattention. I woke up in the small hours of the night, very thirsty. With no bottled water in my room, I sleepily grab the glass next to the sink and drink a glass of water. "I wonder if I should of done that?" I thought, before falling back to sleep. It is a good hotel. They did have a glass sitting there, ready for use...

I awake with a violent dysentery. I can't eat. I know I've got to drink water. This is not good. Hopefully it's a 24 hour bug. I'm burning up. I sleep away the day in my room.

Maybe it's a 48 hour bug. I can't eat. I drink bottled water, but it tastes awful. I sleep and hope this will run it's course. Day three: I take over an hour to crawl out of bed, dress, and make my way to the front desk. I'm sick. I need medical help. Is there a doctor on call for the Hotel? No. Is there a doctor in town? A walk-in clinic? A nurse? No one knows. I head out in my car to the civic centre, where I eventually discover that the medical clinic closed months ago. This is a holiday week, and the nearest doctor will probably be three hours south over mountain and desert roads. Now late in the day, I elect to wait. I've got to drive that road south tomorrow anyway. I've got a major theatre show in a tourist, holiday town, and I'm sure they'll be able to direct me to a nurse, a doctor, a clinic, a pharmacy. Anything. I need to play these last two shows, as the margins are going to be tight on this tour. I wasn't originally planning any down time- so these two shows need to carry the whole of the last week.

Now I'm very weak. Thank goodness the broken down old porter is on hand to help me load the sound gear. It takes a long time to pack. This is hard work. I give him a big tip. I insisted on carrying my own gear in when I arrived, so I hope this makes it up. I eat a boiled egg, and vomit next to my car. Nothing is going down. I'm even having trouble with liquids. I know I've got to drink them, but now they taste foul, and are very hard to swallow. I've got sores inside my mouth. I'm now using bungee cables to hold up my pants. How much weight have I lost in how many days? I load in some bottles of water and pop, and head out. I thought the pop might give me a few sugar calories and help me to keep going. Can't drink it, either. Not more than a mouthful. My eyes feel strange. I probably should not be driving.

I arrive at the Barnyard Theatre, later than planned. I've had to stop at every gas station toilet along the way. I've had to park and sleep a few times. But I made it. I found the theatre. It's not in town. In fact, it is some distance from town, and they are waiting for me to sound check. An early show. Doors are already open. Get me a bottle of water and a glass of red. Thankfully, I'm the first act on the program, and there is a band to close the night. Remarkably, my set goes really well. I'm not even aware of being sick until I leave the stage. My room is upstairs, and I go directly to it. The theatre provides me with a little cheese and cracker plate. I can't eat. I'm asleep in moments, in spite of the band playing in the room below me.

Morning finds me alone in the theatre compound. Two zebras stare over the fence at me. I visit the toilet. I drink bottled water. I'm locked in and can't reach my car. Fortunately the cleaners arrive and let me out. I understand that I am now badly dehydrated. The taste in my mouth and the pain in my body cause me to speculate that my liver and my kidneys may be failing. My tongue is white and feels foreign in my mouth. I'm on my way to a big town. I'll find help there. This is not, not good.

The Knysna Blues Festival was the first organization in South Africa to book me. By chance, it's also the last concert of the Tour– a Tour which rapidly expanded to over 40 shows from this first booking. I've been looking forward to this festival from the beginning. The folks who run it are really nice, and have been very helpful to me. And– after nearly two months of touring South Africa– I now know most of the acts on the bill. I've done other shows with many of these performers. Many are friends. This should be like old home week, a celebration of the Zulu Skies Tour and all the good things it has brought me.

I check into the Festival office to get my ID, my schedule, and my hotel. "Do you folks have a doctor on call?" Apparently this is a North American concept. I repair to my hotel for an hour, and then I'm back. I'm on early in the program, but the whole picture is beginning to become quite a haze. Albert Frost is waiting for me. There's a big crowd out front. Somehow I get my gear to the stage and get set up. Then we're on! Again, remarkably, I feel clear and focused. Albert and I turn in a set that is very well received. And I think that it was probably, actually, a great set. It felt that way from my chair. That's it. The last show of the Tour. Done. I did it. Zulu Skies. Albert helps me to carry my things off the stage. I go to a space behind the green room, and lie down on the concrete floor.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Cape Town: The Left Coast of South Africa

Many roads lead to Cape Town. I'm heading toward the more southerly part of the region, so I've decided to come in on the coastal road instead of the expressways. My Canadian friends might mistake this for a picture of blowing snow: these hot, white sands drifting over the highway. School's out. By 8:30 in the morning these beaches are crowded. It's the holiday season. Summer is doing it's best. By noon the sun will have beat back all but the foreign tourists.

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. Real stories. 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 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. We had a wonderful night, and I loved the room.

The next morning, I'm off to one of Paul Bothner Music's outlets– Plumstead, I believe. Paul Bothner has sponsored my audio production gear for the South African leg of the National Steel Zulu Skies Blues Tour. It is a nice, family run, chain of music stores extending across the country. I'm very much reminded of Canada's Long & McQuade- indeed, the stores look and feel very much the same. Here, as in Canada, I'm doing a series of blues guitar workshops. The Plumstead location is pretty nice, and has a dedicated room and stage.

Yup, had bums in all the seats shortly after this picture was taken. Plenty of guitar players and, of course, a 15 year old who could play like Stevie. A good player, too. I heard him. Again, I'm struck by the sheer proficiency of the younger generation. Robert Johnson had a turntable. We had headphones, and then cassette tapes with vari-speed adjusters (hey, maybe half a tone up or down!), album jacket notes, and then the early bad-tab transcriptions (these still won't go away). Today the digital world has provided learning and listening tools that we would never have imagined. Slow it down– in pitch! Auto-replay that passage! These kids can learn stuff in an afternoon that we might of spent a week, or a month, working on. And maybe we never did get it right. Who knows? And then you can watch guys actually playing it on YouTube. So, here we are. For this generation, the musical skills have never been better, but the creative spirit- the artistry, the ability to touch the world, remains pretty much as it always has been. There's plenty of mechanical talent– but only the occasional genius surfaces to hold our hearts. This is the area that most needs encouragement.

If there's one thing I try to leave my students with, it's the courage to write and sing their own stories in their own voices; putting passion and honesty at the beginning, and letting the musical form follow as it may.

Here are two familiar faces. I've got another couple of shows coming up with Albert Frost before the Tour wraps. Very exciting. We had big fun hanging out up in Tulbagh, and I think we are both looking forward to doing it again. Here, he looks very much like a member of the Dave Clarke Five– and he's sporting what looks to be my Bandmaster- Bassman cabinet combination... I'd use my 330 with this. Of course I don't have a Fender sponsorship. Or even a National sponsorship. Or a Republic sponsorship... Could we work on this?

What it is! A great, Cape Town venue. Sold out for two shows. My pal Gavin McKeller took this pic, and the next four below. All the musicians told me I'd love this room. They were right. I came away from here with a whole lot of new friends. Somehow, in all the excitement, I failed to get any pictures of Richard and Retha and Jonnathan, and all the cool kids who help make this place go. What can I say? I'll be back!! And I'll take pictures.

So nice to have great sound done by a guy who really knows what he's doing. Richard has this aging, Dynacord desk, and it sounded absolutely wonderful. Set up and sound check took less than five minutes. Perfect sound all night, both nights. And plenty of red wine. Hard to go wrong here.

Waiting lists both nights for the dinner and show events. They do a fairly early start, do the meal first, and dessert at half time. Good folks. An educated, engaged concert audience for both shows. I sold quite a few cds to this crowd– always nice when that happens.

Neighbours and Alma patrons Gill and John adopted me for a few days largely because I am a Maclean, and also because I really needed a mid-town base for my work around Cape Town. Gill is a McLean, and took me around to meet her Mum, Mrs. McLean– a local character. Strangely enough this family originally came from the same little pocket in the north of Scotland that mine did. Up on the Lovat Estates, near Inverness. There were not many Macleans up there at all, so we are almost certainly distant cousins.

Gill has also adopted the river above. She and her group of helpers are working hard to clean it up and restore original, wild plant species to the banks.

The Barleycorn Folk Club. I think Africa's longest running folk club. A big room. Capacity audience. I wanted to play here as a matter of respect for the long history of the organization. Still a great gig because it has such a great audience. On the same bill was Steve Walsh and his Lekker Band with special guest Tim Parr. Steve has had a long career in South Africa– I'd say he's blues royalty there. A great singer, player, bandleader. His Lekker band plays as well as any of the North American festival bands. At the end of the evening I sit in with these guys for a few tunes. Big fun. Nice to get to play a bit with Tim, as well.

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. 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. Steve can still be heard playing shows up and down the coast between Durban and Cape Town.

Originally I was going to visit Robbin Island on my down day. That was before I booked a second show at the Alma, and before it got difficult to get tickets to go to the Island. But now, here I am on a show day, early in the morning, at the waterfront, trying to hustle a ticket in person. On line they said they were sold out. I'm here with a nice young couple from the Cafe, and they are doing their best to persuade the ticket office that I am a visiting rock star from America. And it's sort of true. They have seen me in the newspaper.

This is a personal trip. My journey to look, to see for myself: to stand where Mandela stood. The ticket guy finally says he can get us on the one o'clock boat. It comes back at four. So with a little hustle I could still make my gig up in Durbanville. I decide to risk it. I have not come half way around the world to not make this visit.

I made a short Facebook, Instagram post of the above picture. The caption read as follows:

"Mandela's cell. I made the journey to Robbin Island, to stand where he stood, to look out through the bars– his bars, the bars he looked through for 18 years. To feel the place. To better understand how ideas can never be contained by structures such as this."

The response to the above post surprised me, but perhaps I should of expected it. Dozens of posts to my page suggested that I don't know what I'm talking about. That Mandela was nothing but a terrorist– a word I despise as it is commonly used today. Hostile language. Threatening language. I took the majority of these posts down– not simply because I found them to be offensive, but because I did not and do not wish to have these old battles re-run on my page. It's not that I have any lack of respect for the sheer passion behind the comments. It's not that I don't understand that there are different Mandelas for different people in different times and places. In fact, the hostile comments made this truth perfectly clear. But there is also a Mandela who belongs to the world, not just to South Africa.

Finally, my simple caption did not express an opinion of any sort, or make any comment about the Apartheid government, Mandela, the revolution, or the current state of South Africa. Nor have I done so on stage or elsewhere. I have mentioned that I believe South Africa may well become one of the great nations of the next century, but that is all. My time in South Africa has been spent listening and learning. I'm a guest here. And, I hope, a respectful one. People from all backgrounds have told me their stories, and treated me very well. I have been made welcome– and this is a valued trust.

South Africa is a young, post-revolution nation. Anyone, of any race, who has lived through the events since 1948 has been bruised and impacted in some way. It is a country still deeply engaged in healing. A country with a dream– the Rainbow Nation– that is not shared, or viewed in the same way by all. A country in which many people have suffered deep losses. A country in which everyone has a story. Or many stories. A country in which citizens wear their passion for their nation on their sleeves. A country who's future is still far from being secure or predictable. But still a country of hope, I believe. A nation moving forward. Changes never seem to occur at the right speed when they are impacting lives.

Canada and South Africa have much in common. Constitutionally, and procedurally in the reconciliation process there is a history of exchange. And both peoples are painfully polite– when someone bumps into us, we always say– "sorry!" Upon my return to my own imperfect country, I will have much to think about. Already, I am planning my return to South Africa. I am thinking about truth. About art. About the responsibilities of the artist to be truthful. Above is the view of Cape Town and Table Mountain from Robbin Island.

Probably the best concert of the National Steel Zulu Skies Blues Tour. Albert Frost and I playing a sold-out theatre show at Die Boer, in Durbanville, South Africa. There was nothing not to like about this show. After good food, good wine, great sound and lighting, and a wonderful audience– we delivered a fabulous show and had a ball doing it. Durbanville is a northern suburb of Cape Town. Thanks to Lorna and Lorna D Photography for covering no less than three Cape Town area shows, and for kindly sharing some images with me.

Back into the heart of Cape Town for a Bluestown Sessions show at the Mercury Club. It's a big, downtown room. A concert hall, really, with a bar. There were a number of acts on the Blues bill with me, but I played a solo set as the other shows were pretty much electric, big bands. All great players. The bar is pretty high in Cape Town.

Doc MacLean and Doctor John, the veteran Cape Town based blues and soul singer. It was great to meet him and hear him sing a few tunes at the Mercury Club. Next time we'll need a day to hang out!

My front row at my last Cape Town area show: Villa Pascal, in Durbanville. Lots of red wine. Lots of guitar players. There was a time when girls used to sit in the front row. Now it's a boy's club, and we enjoy talking music and guitars. A nice night out! Villa Pascal is a fine, small theatre with great sound and great sight lines. People bring their own food, so it's actually a bit of a pot luck event. Quite unique and quite cool.

Villa Pascal empresario Eugene Lebreton and I had a great time trading music business stories. We'll need more time, and more wine, next time. My quarters are only steps from the theatre but, as I'm planning an early start in the morning, I bid all an early good-night.