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"At the top of their game"
Mail & Guardian

31 August 2012

Cult band The Buckfever Underground launched their seventh album, Verkeerdevlei, over two nights. Lloyd Gedye celebrated the milestone with them.

Frank Zappa once famously said: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” But what about making poetry out of construction sector forecasts?

That is exactly what The Buckfever Underground did last weekend at the launch of their latest album, Verkeerdevlei, at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town.

As their barnstorming by powerful set drew to a close, frontman Toast Coetzer leaned down, picked up a newspaper clipping from the floor and began to recite an article about the health of South Africa’s construction sector. As he quoted talking heads, recounting their views on Basil Read and Group Five, the band flailed away in the background, a beautiful cacophonous noise.

An audience member dressed in black leaped from his seat, mounted the small stage and whipped out a lighter. He pushed it towards the newspaper clipping in Coetzer’s hand. Coetzer instinctively pulled the clipping away from the flame and stared at the punter, his look saying: “We’re not that kind of band, not here in this theatre.”

Not a word was said, but the music never stopped.

Coetzer smiled and embraced the audience member, who had put away his lighter, and passed him the crumpled newspaper. The band was still roaring in the background and Coetzer began to recite, “wees versigting vir jouself (be careful of yourself)” over and over, rising in volume with each turn.

It is a message all South Africans should heed: make sure that you are aware of your effect on others. Was it a message to the audience member who almost started a fire, or a comment on South Africa’s construction sector, which the competition authorities recently outed as having run a cartel for decades? Does it really matter? This is art-rock of the highest order.

It was a poignant moment and something to take home from this fantastic gig.

The previous night’s launch gig at the same theatre had provided the nugget “if you’re afraid of death, your life will be hell”. On the second night Coetzer was telling us all to be careful of ourselves. Having formed in 1998, the launch of Verkeedevlei is a significant milestone, especially for a cult band like The Buckfever Underground. To put it politely, the band has been erratic and tours and albums have had many years of silence between them. It is no wonder that the band members have so many spin-offs and side projects.

The Cape Town shows were about the greater Buckfever Underground family. The gig afforded solo stage time to band members Righard Kapp (experimental guitar), Gil Hockman (singer-songwriter) and Stephen Timm (laptop electronica), as well as Simply Dead — the band that the Underground’s Jon Savage, Coetzer and Savage’s better half, Jane Breetzke, formed last year.

The sense of family was apparent at both gigs. A moment on Saturday summed it up: Hockman and Savage, sitting off to the side of the stage while not needed on one track, smiled at each other and embraced. Watching their brothers in art perform on stage, the sense of camaraderie was evident.

Also present at the gigs was artist Jaco van Schalkwyk, from Afrikaans lo-fi punks Jaco + Z-Dog, who joined the band on stage for a roaring rendition of the new song Unfortunate of Fucked Up?

The song is set up as a game show, with Coetzer playing the show host and Van Schalkwyk the eager contestant. Coetzer proceeded to read out statements from newspaper clippings and Van Schalkwyk responded, saying whether the statement was unfortunate or fucked up.

This was no game show. It was punk performance art. It was chaos wrapped in a song. Van Schalkwyk, wearing a tight white T-shirt with “I’m a broke ass son of a bitch at the top of my game” scrawled on it, was prowling the stage Iggy Pop-style, letting rip with Robert Plantesque yelps of “unfortunate” or roaring growls of “fucked up”.

The audience was beyond excited; they were on the edges of their seats as the chaos played out on stage. At one point in the song, Coetzer picked up a copy of last week’s Mail & Guardian and started flipping through it. He settled on a page and began to read: “In apartheid South Africa, a situation like that in Marikana would have gone down very differently, according to an unreconstructed commander of what was then called a riot squad, who declined to be named for fear of jeopardising his pension.”

“That’s fucked up,” yelled Van Schalkwyk, over and over again.

It was fucked up, but what was fucked up? That this man was an unreconstructed henchman of the apartheid regime, or that we still felt the need to ask someone like that his opinion and quote him in a newspaper, 17 years into our new democracy?

The Buckfever Underground are posing the difficult questions.