Featured #1 for good reason

#1 for good reason

“They said it was sold out, but I didn’t really imagine it. So, I’m dealing with it now.” Matthew Field, the singer and guitarist of Beatenberg, looks a little bewildered, the lights in his eyes, his face locked in that slight frown he always makes when he sings.

There are 939 seats in the Guy Butler Theatre, and they’re all full. Really, this doesn’t make sense: there’s no standing room in the Guy Butler, and Beatenberg, while they are many things, are first and foremost a pop band to dance to. The crowd sits politely for the entirety of the trio’s first song, the hibiscus-and-palm-trees smash-hit Chelsea Blakemore, and as they begin Southern Suburbs, Field’s ode to Tokai-style romance (Land Rovers and all), the question is on everyone’s minds: why are they playing in this venue?

The last time I can remember Beatenberg playing a place like this was in 2012, when they opened for The Tallest Man on Earth at the Cape Town ICC, way before they made their name as one of South Africa’s premier groove-makers. Three years later, however, it’s a bit odd to have them play in a venue where people can’t dance with ease, no matter how undeniably good the sound in the Monument can be. I suppose it’s a trade-off: in Grahamstown you can either soberly appreciate a pop song in a cinema seat or die from smoke inhalation in a club equipped only with a car subwoofer for sound. In all my years in this town – no middle ground, apparently.

Matthew Field, guitarist with pop band Beatenberg,  performs in a concert in the Guy Butler Theatre at the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, 08 July 2015. (Photo: CuePix/Harold Gess)

Matthew Field, guitarist with pop band Beatenberg, performs in a concert in the Guy Butler Theatre at the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, 08 July 2015. (Photo: CuePix/Harold Gess)

This is Beatenberg’s first performance ever here, appearing as part of the Standard Bank Jazz Festival. Seeing as they’re South Africa’s biggest band of the last 12 months – with six SAMA wins, 15 chart-topping weeks and a short stint at Primavera Sound in Barcelona in the bank – it’s an odd context as well as an odd venue for them to be in, even if Field and bassist Ross Dorkin are trained jazz musicians. (Drummer Robin Brink is self-taught, which is kind of unbelievable watching him.) But they take it in their stride – as a band with seven years and two albums’ experience would be expected to.

“We definitely have a feeling for playing together,” Dorkin says in the dressing room before the show, although he needn’t really say. After all this time, they’re definitely an assured act; the ultimate anti-showboaters, with Field only softly bopping on the spot, and Dorkin sidling around stage-left as he lays down his ever-slinky, patient grooves. Brink sits seemingly entranced at his kit, all wrists, blurring joints and counterpoint.

They’d be dull-looking if they weren’t the best pop band in the country, synthesising Paul Simon-via-Vampire Weekend collegiate pop with swashes of technicolour house and eloquent RnB. It’s infectious, deliberate, but also personal; strongly engaged with the contemporary pop languages of both South Africa and the United States, where Field once studied. Their second album, The Hanging Gardens of Beatenberg, is an intoxicating, heady mix of Greek myth recast through the aesthetic of Cape Town’s southern suburbs. In it, shopping malls become labyrinths, swimming pools transform into lush oases, and backyards morph into the verdant haunts of Nebuchadnezzar; where all the genres of South African pop are not so much isolated islands, but a navigable archipelago.

If The Hanging Gardens of Beatenberg wasn’t a radical departure from the tone of their jazzier, even more sun-bleached first album, Farm Photos, it was certainly a more adventurous take on the eternal tropes of memory, nostalgia and wanderlust. It’s a shame they never play these older songs any more, even though some of them are by now almost six years in the tooth. Even so, In B Flat and The Sultan of the Economic Café wouldn’t fit too uncomfortably in between Pluto and Cavendish Square. Even if their two albums are musically divergent, they both draw from the same stream.

It does mean, however, that they have to play live with backing tracks. Cape to Rio is fabulous, all blue waters and Mainstay advert-themed tropes, but the added piano that comes through the speakers from a computer near Brink’s kit is a little awkward. To his credit, Field jokes that “they have a talented pianist just off-stage” that he pays “R10 a show”.

“It’s not actually ideal,” he had said earlier. “I mean, apparently everyone, every band runs tracks these days. But it affords you a kind of performance style.”

“I think we’ll probably go back to some aspects of what got us going in the beginning,” he adds. “I’m phrasing this in a strange way, I know, but it’s just to make it clear that we’re not going to go back to that earlier sound – just more that mode of playing.”

But, frankly, the older kind of Beatenberg isn’t what everyone is here to hear. By the beginning of the third song, the modern-Homeric epic Ithaca, the energy in the room is made flesh. Hand-claps come in time with Dorkin and Brink’s sonorous, rolling groove, and eventually the crowd is on their feet. In the end the audiences settles into a Mass-like routine: up for a song, down for a song. When the Ray Phiri-esque, chorus-flanged riff of Beauty Like A Tightened Bow comes in and the crowd explodes upward, the people in the front might have been grateful for the protection that the seats gave: without them, it might have been anarchy in that theatre.

And in a quiet moment – in the shimmering Scorpionfis” or a new, untitled composition that Field performed solo and deliciously echo-wet – there’s space and comfort for contemplation, for soaking in Field’s nimble voice and guitarwork. He never pushes a note too far, never embellishes. Similarly, Brink and Dorkin never over-extend themselves, although you get the feeling that very little is beyond them

But lyrical themes are more for close listeners than anything else. Sure, The Prince of the Hanging Gardens might contain the most well-considered use of the word hydrangea in pop music, but it’s the synth and Dorkin’s sinuous fretwork that truly sells it. And although the set’s closer Rafael may be inspired by a tennis player, but first and foremost it’s a pastel-hued house song, underpinned by a dangerously danceable groove. Field briefly loses his synchronicity with the electronic track that backs it – another reason, perhaps, why he describes playing with tracks live as “not ideal”. Still, it’s one of the best singles in the South African pop canon of the 21st century so far.

Beatenberg are only playing one show here this year, which is a shame because there’s the feeling that their career will soon be played out on foreign shores, whether they be Ionian or Atlantic.

Nick Mulgrew
Cue co-editor

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