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GRACE AND THUNDER – REVIEW (article first published : 1999-10-3)

Tony Cox is justifiably acknowledged as one of South Africa’s finest exponents of the steel string acoustic guitar. His offbeat, laid-back and engaging presentation is as unique as his extraordinary ability to continually challenge the boundaries of acceptable musical styles. He can make his guitar sing, speak or shout and generally produce a combination of sounds that makes you doubt the undeniable sight before you that that there is, in fact, only one instrument being played!

Combine this awesome talent with the equally astounding ability of master drummer/percussionist Barry van Zyl and you’re in for a top class show with a difference. Tony and Barry have worked together for some time in the band Cool Friction which has recorded two CD’s. Tony was last seen in Durban with long-time colleague Steve Newman and Chris Tokolan in the highly entertaining Don’t Tune Us.

On the rainy and misty first night of the Hilton Arts Festival (which mercifully enjoyed fine weather from the following day), Grace and Thunder performed to a dedicated audience who weren’t going to let a bit of damp deter them. The performers were accompanied by an uninvited noisy cricket in the rafters that was at least considerate enough to keep in time although it was unable to recognise or respect the occasional quiet passages!

The programme included evocative numbers like Winter Song which saw Barry van Zyl using brushes on African drums (interesting sound!) and enhancing the strong flowing rhythm with Indian bells and tambourine. For Random Chorus, the audience was invited to throw in an “Ek sę” (Afrikaans expression literally meaning “I say” – alternatively meaning ”great” or “cool”!) when they felt so moved. Before long, the pace and rhythm began inviting comment and soon music and voice exchanges were in top gear and flowing fast and furious.

A fascinating piece dealt with the bush and an ant hole, taking the audience on a journey into the ant hole with its myriad of passages with the warning that some of the areas could hold danger. An introduction of atmospheric bush noises (through the instruments) followed by a flurry of notes immediately conjured up thousands of ants scurrying around in all direction and the music did indeed travel a path that often led to dark (dangerous) areas. The television producer in me immediately wanted to create a documentary on ants purely to fit this evocative number!

Tenderoso was a beautiful, graceful and elegant piece while saw Tony Cox re-tuning his guitar to Celtic or American folk mode, observing that he had originally set out to write something Eastern and didn’t “quite know how it happened to end up the way it did.” A complicated and very technical piece, it saw the use of a myriad of percussive instruments including seed pods and tuned cowbells. The final Zulu War Song was in staccato style incorporating powerful drumbeats and driving rhythm. As an encore, the pair produced a foot-tapping “sideways rock and roll”!

Watching the familiar figure of Tony Cox, instantly recognisable because of his unmistakable ash-coloured mop of long curly hair, hunched over his guitar and lost to the world, I felt it a privilege to be able to move into his world of music even if it was for a brief hour. You’ll find out more about this unusual musician on his well-designed website http://www.tonycox.co.za


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