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The real musician’s musician

Vince Pienaar

There is a legend about Shawn Phillips that I choose to believe, even though I know that the source is a spectacularly unreliable one. It goes as follows:

Shawn Phillips toured South Africa in 2000 and 2002 (this is true) and liked the country so much that he decided to stay. This could be true, because even now he is the local fireman for the NSRI in Port Elizabeth.

But, goes the legend, at the time when he was reputed to be living in Melville (very dubious) he had some kind of visa or passport problems (not unlikely) and had to return to the USA in a hurry. Not having any money (without doubt the truth) he decided to do a concert at the Bass Line in 7th Street.

(Incidentally, finding where the Bass Line was before it closed is easy: you drive up what used to be DF Malan Drive into Melville, turn left where the swimming pool used to be, turn right at the corner where the Mixer used to be and just across the road from where Horatio’s used to be, is where the Bass Line was.)

The concert was organised in a hurry, of course, and the advertising for the show consisted of one A4 sheet with the words “Shawn Phillips tonite – no booking” scribbled on it with a koki pen and stuck in the window of the Bass Line. It must have been effective, because (and this is pure legend) by about two o’clock in the afternoon a queue of faithful (and presumably balding, spreading and greying) fans started forming, finding its way up the street in the direction of the post office.

If ever there was an enterprising restaurateur, it is that remarkable man Miro, of Full Stop fame, who is currently doing good business in Parktown. Imagine him, with his perfectly trimmed beard and his spotless apron that looks as if it has never seen the inside of a kitchen, saying to a waiter: “Why are those people standing on the pavement?” The waiter runs across and comes back and tells him what’s happening. “In that case,” says Miro, “we must give them chairs.”

And so it happens that Miro starts handing out free chairs – provided that you buy a glass of wine, and while you’re about it, what about a calamari starter or the spicy breakfast that the Full Stop is famous for? Nuno, or Mr Melville as he is jokingly referred to in some circles because of his Continental good looks, looks out of his shop window at Nuno’s and sees plates and glasses being ferried back and forth across the road and, no doubt, sends Nicollete to go and investigate. She comes back with an order for two bottles of wine, four Castles, two helpings of chicken livers, and three Nuno’s specials, which, with it being Thursday, would be the pasta of your choice – and “How many spare chairs have we got?”

By now Spiro will have dragged his gangly body and soft-permed curly blonde hair out onto the pavement, and will be offering his very delectable starter platter around. Not since the All Blacks versus Springboks test at Ellis Park in 1961, when people queued through the night for tickets, have happier faces been seen loitering around on a pavement!

All of it legend, of course, but, my source assures me it is the absolute truth and I believe it and, what’s more, I have no desire to go in search of confirmation.

I first came across Shawn Phillips’s work in the early 70s, whilst living in a commune, when a house mate arrived with an album called Second Contribution with a picture from behind of a girl with long straight hair on the cover. This was at the time when the Beatles with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Pink Floyd with Dark Side of the Moon and many others had convinced the music world that albums could – and should – be worth listening to from beginning to end, and I didn’t bother much with the individual song titles, but listened to the entire album. To this day I remember it as one continuous experience, not as isolated tracks, and when I look at the individual titles now, except for “The Ballad of Casey Deiss”, I can’t link the titles to a specific tune. Although I was knocked out by the album and listened to it endlessly, it still took me years to find out that the girl on the cover was not a girl at all – it was Shawn Phillips himself photographed from behind.

Although I had had the absolute pleasure of meeting Susan Coetzer as the mistress of her art gallery at Die Blou Hond (The Blue Dog) and have seen her talented husband, Philip Moolman, performing many times since the days when After Dark was a respected venue, I had never been to a show at Die Blou Hond and (I will confess) had never had designs on going there, the format being a little too “hip” for an old mainstream rocker like myself. But having been driven into the corner of not wanting to miss Shawn Phillips again, and having a predilection for women who combine earthy beauty with unaffected charm, I decided that I would take my chances.

They have a canine theme at the venue and there are rituals like barking when you’re pleased and howling when you want attention, male dogs lifting their legs against car tyres outside and bitches squatting “out back” etc that don’t do it for me, but the success of the venue (with sold-out concerts for months in advance) and the excellence of the food puts it above petty criticism.

Philip and Susan decided that they would create a business for themselves that didn’t require travelling. Lonely nights in lonely venues miles from each other has spelt the death knell for many a couple in the entertainment field, and they put this venue together, with the art gallery side of it a recent string added to the bow. Coetzer’s art work is not taken down and hidden away when they have shows, and there is a gentle vibe about the place. In fact, their respect for people, both their customers and their artists, permeates the entire venue. For example, various items (including CDs) are left on the tables and a courtesy box is sent around for you to pay for whatever you take.

Tickets are charged at a courageous R170, which is quite a whack compared with most other venues, but it includes the excellent meal that Susan prepares herself. It also has the very pleasurable spin-off that people don’t easily pay that kind of money if they’re out for a casual jol, and the crowd is usually very into the artist – something I enjoy immensely.

(I was a little apprehensive of the large table behind me who seemed a little boisterous to begin with, but I soon heard them saying names like Crosby Stills and Nash, Joan Baez, Country Joe, Arlo Guthrie, which sounded positive, and when I heard the word Woodstock I knew I was among friends.)

Phillips speaks with a Texas twang and (as somebody commented) looks like a recently-bathed hillbilly. I don’t know about that, but he certainly doesn’t dress up, what with his floral shirt, plain slacks and, of course, the long hair, but in a ponytail.

He has played at some of the major venues in the world and here in South Africa he has performed at the Wits Great Hall and the Linder Auditorium amongst others, but at this venue, with no more than a hundred people in a largish lounge, he seems to be most at home. If he was ever a “star” in the Barbra Streisand, “glittering” senseof the word, he certainly is nothing like that now. It takes him very little time to get around to the fact that his wife, Juliet, had recently had a baby and how proud he is. He sings a song about her with the line that with her, “life is just a stepping stone that’s in our path”.

When he talks about the songs he seems most proud of the people who have played with him. Although he is by himself on the little stage, many of the songs are prefaced with the names of musicians who were involved in the recordings. What he doesn’t mention is that legendary musicians like Paul Buckmaster, Steve Winwood, Eric Clapton, Rick Hart and Rick Wakeman don’t just play with anybody – they play with other legends. Names that pop up since he started playing in the early 1960s, include Donovan (ever wondered who played the sitar on the early Donovan songs?), with whom he shared an apartment along with Paul Simon.

As I look at my notes now, I realise that, although I have pages of them, I did what I did when I first heard him on vinyl thirty years ago: I remember only a few of the individual songs. Once again “Casey Deiss” was a highlight and “Calico and Rainbows” stood out because of the buoyancy of the tune and the technical excellence. Of course, I would not have missed “Moonshine” as I had waited for it all night, but the rest is just a luxurious, colourful, warm wash of gentle, magical artistry.

I had just leaned over to my companion and pronounced that “guitar really is at its best as an acoustic instrument”, when Phillips whipped out a machine that looked like a Fender Strat sawn in half (no kidding) and glued to some other guitar to make a two-necked musical instrument. He played only the Fender half, but made me eat my words: when the masters play, it is doesn’t matter whether it is acoustic or electric.

He is one of those artists who gets the audience leaning forward in their seats, and by the end of the show most of us were bent double to get a closer look at what he was up to. Philip Moolman himself had sat down on the floor to check his technique.

When Shawn Phillips left the stage I felt a little cheated. I felt the show was very short, with only one encore. Only later was it pointed out to me that it was a normal length show – it only felt as though it had come and gone in a flash.

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LitNet: 19 April 2006

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