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MUSIC REFLECTION

Steve Louw’s ‘Thunder and Rain’ — balancing light and darkness

Steve Louw’s ‘Thunder and Rain’ — balancing light and darkness
Steve Louw. Image: Jacqui van Staden

The blood of our fathers lights the road we’re on — moving out of the darkness to a place in the sun. These are the words that usher in the conclusion of I’m Coming Home, the last song on Thunder and Rain, the new album by veteran South African rocker Steve Louw.

The dawning of hope in the lyric — a sentiment that’s matched by the stirring music — acts as a rebuke to the impending doom etched out by the album’s opening title track, a song where it’s possible to hear and feel bad weather creep in over the horizon. 

Waiting for light to emerge after darkness is a thematic undercurrent on Thunder and Rain, an album on which  Steve Louw balances these opposite impulses with strength and compassion. It opens with a sense of foreboding — a feeling that resonates strongly in 2022, as the world picks up the pieces after the pandemic — yet Louw doesn’t dwell in the darkness. 

He celebrates restorative, nourishing love on Mother, Don’t Go, an insightful, insistent tune graced by guitar wizard Joe Bonamassa, who brings out the song’s incandescent spirit as he intertwines his playing with that of Doug Lancio, a guitarist who has just entered Louw’s orbit. 

The album winds its way through The Road Fades from Sight, a ballad built upon the soul-sustaining power of longtime love and reaches the finish line with I’m Coming Home, an invigorating conclusion that leaves no doubt there’s room for optimism in these troubled times. By finding space for this full range of emotion, Thunder and Rain operates on a refreshingly human scale, emphasising deep emotions and interpersonal interactions — it’s music that’s meant to be felt as much as heard. 

Thunder and Rain follows hot on the heels of Headlight Dreams, the 2021 album that found Louw returning to active duty after a 13-year absence. After this prolonged period away from the spotlight, Louw discovered an audience eager to hear new music from the singer/songwriter: Headlight Dreams received strong reviews and earned a nomination for Best Rock Album at the South African Music Awards in 2022. 

Revitalised by his comeback, Louw was soon back in the studio recording a new collection of songs with the team responsible for Headlight Dreams. Returning to the fold are Grammy-nominated keyboardist Kevin McKendree, guitarist Rob McNelley, bassist Alison Prestwood and drummer Greg Morrow, with Doug Lancio serving as a versatile multi-instrumentalist. 

With producer Kevin Shirley — a longtime friend and colleague of Louw’s who has also worked with Joe Bonamassa, John Hiatt, Robert Cray Band, and the Black Crowes — behind the boards, Thunder and Rain shares some sonic similarities with its acclaimed predecessor, yet it has its own distinctive character. 

Where Headlight Dreams crackled with the pent-up energy of an artist eager to unburden his feelings in the wake of a long hiatus, Thunder and Rain unfurls at a relaxed pace. Some of this shift in tone can be credited to the addition of Lancio, who adds considerable colour and texture to the music, whether he’s playing mandolin on I’ll Be Back or slide guitar on I’m Coming Home. This casual warmth is a welcome tonic in a time of global unrest: Louw’s small-scale vignettes resonate because of their intimacy.

Steve Louw. Image: Jacqui van Staden

Steve Louw. Image: Jacqui van Staden

Stories of unrest

Thunder and Rain teems with stories of unrest: the songs are rife with images of stony beds, burning skies and abandonment. Despite all this bad weather, Louw ultimately finds glimmers of optimism and reconciliation, an optimistic conclusion he conveys with warm, intimate performances. The interplay on Thunder and Rain is often subtle, yet it’s undeniably soulful, the songs benefiting from the easy turns of phrases and chord changes. 

Even the gloomier tunes on the album benefit from this seasoned execution. Thunder and Rain is a perfect example: it unfolds slowly, deliberately, the sound of weather creeping across the horizon. Louw captures a sense of unease with oblique references to the “pain in our town” but he counters this sense of dread by relying on community and the promise of love, elements that take root in Thunder and Rain. Sometimes he conveys these emotions through strength, as he does on I’ll Be Back, a song where acoustic guitars give the track a steady, windblown propulsion, one that muscles through on the chorus: he’s a man on a mission, one dedicated to the task at hand.

From Big Sky to today’s solo work

This sense of purpose flows throughout Louw’s career. It was there on the two records he made with his first band, All Night Radio, including 1986’s The Killing Floor, the album on which he first collaborated with Kevin Shirley. Louw came to stardom as the leader of Big Sky, a group that put out their first album, Waiting for the Dawn, in 1990. 

Big Sky’s arrival coincided with South Africa’s journey away from apartheid rule and their music provided a joyous soundtrack for positive revolution over the next 15 years. During their time together, Big Sky released five albums, a discography highlighted by 1995’s acclaimed Horizon, creating a catalogue of South African radio perennials in the process. 

The band earned accolades from the industry, including winning the FNB Music Award for Best SA Rock Act in 1996. At the end of their run as a band, Big Sky were the opening act for Rodriguez on his valedictory tour of South Africa, a journey captured in the 2012 Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man. The film raised Louw’s international profile, leading to his collaboration with Queen’s Brian May and Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart on Amandla, a song about 2003’s Nelson Mandela-inspired Aids awareness project 46664.  

Following the release of Trancas Canyon in 2008, Louw retreated from the spotlight. He broke his silence with Headlight Dreams, a rousing comeback delivered in 2021. Thunder and Rain capitalises on the revitalised spirit while also being a testament to the enduring strength of his partnership with Shirley. 

Once again, the producer assembled a group of sympathetic pros to bring depth and dimension to Louw’s handsomely constructed songs, cutting the basic tracks at Ocean Way Studios in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s the same approach Louw and Shirley employed for Headlight Dreams, but the difference on Thunder and Rain is palpable: this is music that feels comfortable and experienced, music that suggests a rich interior life in its blend of searching soul, muscular folk and insistent rock. It’s a blend that Louw has refined throughout his career, so no wonder it feels so rich and natural on Thunder and Rain: it is, quite literally, the music of his life. DM/ML

Thunder and Rain was released on 11 November.


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  • Russel Wasserfall says:

    May I just offer this thought: I stopped scrolling to take a look at Jackie van Staden’s beautiful portrait of this artist. Out of curiosity I started reading the article and was hooked until the last word. This is the best piece of music writing I have read in a seriously long time – brilliantly constructed and well researched. Although I was a fan of (and writer about) SA music through the ’80s and ’90s I never encountered Steve Louw. His albums are on my playlist now though. Thank you very much Thomas Erlewine.

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