GRAHAMSTOWN FEST 2012: REVIEW FROM 'THE CITIZEN'
A review from The Citizen's Bruce Dennill.
With, according to one estimate, around 295 shows happening per day in Grahamstown during this year’s National Arts Festival, it’s inevitable that some of them are going to be poorly attended.
08 July 2012 | BRUCE DENNILL
SHOW: John Ellis – Prime Gig - That’s a tough scenario for artists, especially those who feed off the energy of an audience.
John Ellis is in town to punt the release of his second solo album Rural (available at www.johnellis.co.za) stepped on stage with only 20 or so people in attendance in what promotes itself as a “party venue” – lots of bright lights and tiles, but precious little atmosphere.
VENUE: Prime, Grahamstown
Armed only with his trusty Gibson dreadnought, Ellis, on the eve of his 40th birthday, played a short selection of new tunes, kicking off with the platinum pop of Backroads, a relatively simple strummed affair with an elephantine hook.
That was followed by Treasure, which, in another context and with another band (Tree63), reached the top of a Billboard chart some years ago – a million miles, in every way, from this festival setting.
Ellis’s stage persona is a charming cynic – he downplays everything from his talent and achievements to the “unexpected” arrival of an actual audience.
If you’ve never seen him play before, you may think he’s over selling this schtick, but it’s largely the reaction of a musician who’s lived the dream (living in Nashville; touring the States) and realised it wasn’t all it was made out to be.
When he stops the banter and plays, Ellis shows a natural musicality few local singer-songwriters can match. That, along with his songwriting, makes another new song, Any Minute Now (a gentle, picked ballad) an affirming experience.
In fact, the speaking Ellis and the singing Ellis seem to occasionally be in opposition to each other. There’s plenty of bluster in his conversation, but his songs, while often dealing with themes of brokenness and brittleness, suggest a willingness to at least seek out the silver lining in each situation.
A cover version of The Police’s SOS (“It tells an incredible story in three verses”, says Ellis) and one of Paul McCartney’s Blackbird continue these themes, and the unwillingness of the audience to sing along audibly in the chorus of the former poignantly (if unwittingly) adds to the fragile atmosphere.
Ellis hits his stride when he returns, creatively speaking, to Africa. A part-time lecturer in politics, he raises a question with his audience that he covers with his students: can a white person call themselves an African.
By way of an answer, he plays Come Home, another new track.
The punchline for this intimate roller-coaster ride sees Ellis morph another Tree63 tune into Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds (refrain: “Every little thing is gonna be alright”).
And you know what? He sounds like he means it.