Sound Bites: Charles Webster

Charles Webster in action. Picture by Minnesh Harichand of Namaste Photography.

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BILLY SUTER with an occasional column in which he chats to popular musicians about their musical likes and dislikes. The spotlight is on the KZN Midlands’ CHARLES WEBSTER, popular singer-guitarist and member of the duo, Bowstring, also featuring his daughter, Rebecca. Webster co-ordinates the fortnightly music gathering, Music in the Hills (MiTH), held every second Wednesday at The Knoll Historic Guest Farm, Knoll Drive, Hilton.
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Latest news from you?

I recently played at Fern Hill Hotel and District 103. The rest of my gigs for 2019 are mostly private functions, like birthdays and weddings. Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that MiTH (Music in The Hills) is going strong after more than five-and-a-half years, and these evenings happen every two weeks. MiTH is a major source of fulfilment and pride for me – we have an amazing team of people who help make things happen, and the musicians who come through the club love the stage and the audience.

What is your favourite song right now?

Lewis Capaldi’s Bruises is my favourite cover right now, and I recently debuted an original of mine called The Voice, at MiTH, and it’s a song I’m pleased with.

The last album you bought – and why?

Loggins & Messina’s On Stage (1974) because a friend told me I’d love it and should cover some of their songs.

Two of your favourite songs of all time?

When the Levee Breaks by Led Zeppelin has one of my favourite and (arguably one of the more iconic) intros in all of rock. My other choice is U2’s Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, because it’s a favourite of mine to sing, is featured on a favourite album of mine and reflects parts of my personal life journey.

Some of your choices for the finest albums ever – and why?

Graceland by Paul Simon was my 13th birthday present and is probably still my favourite album of all time. Also of note is U2’s Rattle and Hum, which I love because it’s the soundtrack to my high school career, and I love the live nature of the recording. Sometimes live albums are just better.

Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies & Gnossiennes is something I learned to love in my forties, although I’d heard it early on in life. It’s beautiful, was innovative for its time, and relaxes me to the core of my being.

The Beatles’ White Album is another choice. I’m a massive fan of The Beatles, but this album moves away from some of their earlier, more mainstream and (dare I say?) slightly saccharine hits, to explore slightly darker themes and more interesting lyrics, melodies and arrangements.

When I was five I was asked what my favourite music was. My answer was “Beethoven”, I love his Ninth Symphony because it’s just majestic.

Worst song in history?

Tough call, but I’m going to go with The Klaxons’ Clap-clap Song. Really cheesy synth, repetitive melody and all-round eyeroll material.

Song you most associate with your teens?

Stairway to Heaven. (Led Zeppelin IV was also part of the soundtrack to my high school career).

Johnny Clegg

Song you most associate with your early childhood years?

My mom made me a compilation tape that featured, among things, The Fox by Harry Belafonte.

The size of your music collection and the artists represented most there?

Gosh… no idea of its size, since it’s now a hybrid of CDs, Apple Music and Spotify. I suspect The Beatles probably feature more prominently than anyone else. Sara Jarosz is a newcomer who has made a deep impact on my musical soul. Look out for Gone Too Soon – a mournfully beautiful track.

Favourite radio station and DJ?

My favourite DJ must be Capital’s Martin Godfrey. He’s a mate and he promotes local music like crazy. Love that guy. I don’t listen to much other radio.

The local artists you most admire?

I absolutely love Johnny Clegg’s music. I grew up with it and I was devastated when he died. His ability to cross over between cultures was exactly what South Africa needed.  On the guitar, I’m a big fan of Tony Cox and Steve Newman, and Vicky Sampson is just a wonderful vocalist.

Artists from abroad that you most admire?

Sting is a hero of mine. Socially aware content, subtle lyrics and musical versatility are his benchmarks. I enjoyed The Police, but as a solo artist he has become iconic.

Paul Simon is another all-time hero of mine. Simon and Garfunkel set the standard for folk-rock harmony and lyric. Later, Simon’s incorporation of multicultural influences affected me deeply. I know Graceland pretty much by heart – song by song, lyric by lyric.

Most over-rated people in the recording business?

Music executives who want to define public taste, it seems, and feed us a diet of McDonalds-like musical fast food. There’s a world of music out there, and all my friends are listening to all sorts of interesting new artists. Why we need to be subjected to junk food is beyond me.

It’s time for the musical equivalent of Camembert and cranberry sauce, good sourdough, farm butter, fresh tomatoes, greens and beautifully cured pancetta.

Pet hate/s about the music scene in South Africa?

The fact that we’re enslaved, like the rest of the world, to canned pop, it seems. I have nothing against pop – there’s plenty of good stuff. But having run MiTH for five-and-a-half years I’ve seen a plethora of amazing local musicians whose excellent originals in a variety of genres seem to get flat ignored.

I can only assume vested interests are at play. We need some independent maverick radio stations. Maybe I’d start listening to the radio again.

The one music act you would give the world to see perform live?

Queen, with Freddie. ’Nuff said.

Ever asked a music personality for an autograph?

Yes – Johnny Clegg.

Music acts you have seen live and loved?

Paul Simon, Tananas, Johnny Clegg, U2, KZNPO, Crowded House, Bryan Adams and Guns ’N Roses.

Best singing star ever?

For pure passion and brilliance – Jacques Brel. Aside from Belafonte’s The Fox, Jacques Brel’s Marieke was a major part of my early childhood memories.

The greatest musician of all time?

Beethoven. I mean, the man composed the Ninth Symphony after he lost his hearing. I’m not sure how one competes with that.

Best band in history?

It’s always a toss-up, but for the way they revolutionised rock – Led Zeppelin.

The styles of music you most enjoy – and least enjoy?

Most: rock, folk, classical, pop, jazz. Least: thrash metal, some of the more banal forms of rap and R&B (there is stuff in these genres I appreciate). And I’m not a big fan of boeremusiek, despite my half-Afrikaans background.

The most embarrassing artist represented in your music collection – and why is it there?

I’ve largely given up being embarrassed by music or taking part in musical snobbery, but I know some would look down on my Celine Dion CDs. I particularly love her French stuff, which I find more soulful than the English translations and covers, often.

The one song that will always be guaranteed to get you on to a dancefloor?

David Bowie’s Let’s Dance.

The musical teaming you would most like to see?

A new crush of mine, Samantha Fish (a rising US blues-rock star), and BB King.

Your choice of karaoke song (and why)?

The Time Warp… so I can bust those moves.

The first song you ever performed for an audience?

A classical guitar piece whose name escapes me, at my Grade 6 prize-giving.

Guilty pleasure: a song you really feel you shouldn’t enjoy, but secretly do?

As a young man I found Paula Cole’s City of Angels track, Feelin’ Love, irresistibly sexy. I was secretive about it, then. These days, I regard sexuality as something to be celebrated.

Worst decade for music?

Okay, I’m doing my best to actually answer questions and not avoid them with philosophy, but in this one I’m going to say I really don’t buy into the “they don’t make music like they used to” or “this or that genre/decade was characterised by really bad music” tropes. I just can’t choose. There’s fabulous music, and sh*t, from every decade.

Hottest-looking music celebs?

Samantha Fish, David Bowie, Blondie, Katy Perry, Bradley Cooper.

Instruments you can play?

Vocals, guitar (classical, rhythm, bass, a bit of lead), percussion and ukulele.

The song you’d like to be played at your funeral?

Highway to Hell by AC/DC.

The song you find the saddest?

For Baby by Peter, Paul and Mary. It’s how I first told my wife I love her, and for some reason, a beautiful melancholy fills me every time I sing it. Especially to her.

Two dead music icons you’d most like to invite to dinner?

Johnny Clegg and Aretha Franklin.

Charles Webster and his daughter, Rebecca, performing as Bowstring. Picture by Minnesh Harichand of Namaste Photography.

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