There is something, perhaps insanely, magical about the mental images conjured up by the words “Cities on flame with rock and roll/ Three thousand guitars they seem to cry/ My ears will melt, and then my eyes/ Oh, let the girl, let that girl, rock and roll/ Cities on flame now, with rock and roll”.
Even if Blue Oyster Cult was tending for some overkill with the notion of 3 000 guitars, there is just as delicious an image with six rock axemen doing it live.
And they are!
In a country that produces a prodigious amount of talent and all too often an equal amount of under-enthusiasm for artists not named Steve or Kurt, the rock guitar legends are fighting back through ‘Riders from the Storm’, an initiative undertaken by Mel Botes, renowned for his master craftsmanship on the electric guitar, his interpretations of various legendary rock works, his original compositions and his classical repertoire.
Says Botes: “The concept was born out of similar projects undertaken by international rock legends such as Yngwie Malmsteen, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai. Locally, we have also had unprecedented success with the band ‘6 Snare’, in which we have combined six of the most popular Afrikaans folk musicians into one group, roughly following the same recipe used by the international supergroup ‘The Travelling Wilburys’.
“Hence, joining six of the most prolific electric guitar players into one rock supergroup was a logical next step to take.”
The band members shared a stage for the first time at their maiden performances in February last year at the Atterbury Theatre in Pretoria. Most recently they performed at Shelley Point in St Helena Bay as part of the Hyundai SA launch of the Santa Fe – cars and rock ‘n roll, always a good mix.
The band members are: Mel Botes, Piet Botha, Albert Frost, Valiant Swart and Nathan Smith. There will always be an invited sixth ‘mystery’ member who will be selected from guitarists from popular local rock bands, session musicians and solo artists. In fact, for the latest gig, Mauritz Lotz joined and Robin Auld was the guest – Nathan Smith sitting this one out.
Botes is an accomplished player, interpreter and originator of legendary rock works, including his evergreen nationwide top-sellers ‘Crazy Diamond – A tribute to Pink Floyd’; ‘Sultans of Swing – A tribute to Dire Straits’ and his own original, ‘David’s Confession – About Time, Chapter II.
Piet Botha is renowned as one of the pioneers of South African rock and has become a legend in his own time as front man of ‘Jack Hammer’ as well as a host of solo Afrikaans and English rock works. Along with the likes of Valiant Swart, it was Botha who was a ‘voortrekker’ of Afrikaans rock and their groundbreaking work probably paved the way for the likes of Koos Kombuis and Fokof Polisiekar.
It was never easy and in the early days more attention was paid by the media to who Botha was related to than the music and I recall talking to him at an early Jack Hammer gig where he said, emphatically: “I don’t care about that shit; I just want to play music.”
In fact, what they were doing back then was a huge step away from what was considered ‘normal’ for a pair of ‘boereseuns’ and their songs were not cutesy little ditties about boy meets girl but real reflections of life, love, hate, fear and hope in a changing South Africa. And this probably scared the crap out much of the ‘establishment’.
Now, older and sporting a Willie Nelson kind of look as the long tresses ease towards grey, he is doing just that. Playing the music. So too is Valiant Swart.
As a session musician, Mauritz Lotz’s innovative style can be heard on more than 1 000 local album productions and he has shared the stage with various South African artists supporting international artists such as Roberta Flack, The Bee Gees, The Rolling Stones, Ronan Keaton, Eric Clapton, Sting, Midnight Oil, Joan Armatrading and OMD.
It is hardly surprising the rest of the Riders joke about taping two of his fingers together before a gig to even the playing field.
Albert Frost is one of the most accomplished guitarists in South Africa and brings some edgy blues-rock to the collaboration, having cut his teeth with the Blues Broers and in his capacity as a solo artist or with his trio.
Says Botes: “The brief to these musicians was simple – each had to contribute three compositions to the group’s performance in which that particular musician plays the lead guitar to accompaniment from a full rock band.
“They were given a choice between original or standard rock renditions, provided the music fitted within the overall criterion of ground-breaking work. Furthermore, each musician also had to submit material that could be played be the group as a whole, balancing recognisable sounds with new artistic works.
Of course, Riders would be little without proper backing and the engine room of the group comprises Ghapi (aka Phillip Botha) on drums, Simon Orange (Blue Broers) on keyboards and Schalk van der Merwe (Bed on Bricks) on bass.
Unkindly they have been called a ‘cover band’ and, perhaps, in a sense they are. However, it is the interpretation that makes for originality and the mix does include original works from each of the collaborators, such as Valiant Swart’s ephemeral ‘Die Vloek van die Kitaar’, ‘Suitcase vol Winter’ (Piet Botha), ‘All of Woman’ (Robin Auld), ‘Mountains’ (Albert Frost), ‘Torremelinos’ (Mel Botes) and ‘Nemesis’ (Mauritz Lotz).
There’s a spider-shiver that runs from the base of your spine to smack you in the back of the head when the entire ensemble gathers its collective force to belt our “Riders on the Storm (The Doors), Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple), ‘Le Grange’ (ZZ Top) or ‘All Along the Watchtower’ (Bob Dylan/Jimi Hendrix) and you have never heard Beethoven’s 9th Symphony played the way Mel Botes does it.
This is a storm of epic proportions and it’s coming for you!