Back in early April 2021, I read a press release announcing a new album coming from Steve Louw and it included the video of a song called “Crazy River”. I loved the big open spaces this song evoked (and enhanced by the video) and the subtle African guitar sounds reminded me of early Johnny Clegg.
I first heard of Steve Louw in 1990 when the cassette version of the “Pop Shop 48” album featured the song “Waiting For The Dawn” by Big Sky as a bonus track. There is actually no real band called Big Sky, it is the name Steve Louw has used when he surrounds himself with the cream of the crop of American and South African musicians.
I first met Steve in March 1998, backstage at the first Rodriguez concert at the Bellville Velodrome, outside Cape Town. Steve and that year’s incarnation of Big Sky were a worthy support act. The rest of Big Sky (led by Steve’s old buddy since the seventies, Willem Möller) also backed Rodriguez for his set. That sold-out tour of South Africa is featured in the Oscar-winning film, “Searching For Sugar Man“.
Steve recorded two albums in the 80’s with his band All Night Radio, and then five albums as Big Sky between 1990 and 2008, as well as a compilation album, “Best Of The Decade” (in 1999), and a live concert DVD recorded over two nights in 2008.
And now he comes blasting back with his first solo album (well, technically) in 13 years. As in his Big Sky days, he has surrounded himself with some top players in their fields. So let’s drop a few names; “Headlight Dreams” was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, produced by Kevin Shirley, mastered by Bob Ludwig, liner notes by Stephen Thomas Erlewine (from AllMusic), and a guitar solo on “Wind In Your Hair” by one of my favourite guys from the more recent crop of Blues guitar-slingers, Joe Bonamassa.
Louw also brought in some of the best musos in Nashville, namely Kevin McKendree (keyboards), Alison Prestwood (bass), Rob McNelly (guitars) and Greg Morrow (drums). Steve Louw wrote all the songs and sings and plays acoustic guitar.
This album is filled with great songs, from the bluesy, lyrically hard-hitting “Get Out Of My Heart” to the bouncy “Queen Bee Maybe” with its delightful Hammond organ solo from Kevin McKendree, however my favourite track on this album is the almost proggish “Train Don’t Run”. Clocking in at seven and half minutes this is an epic tune that you hope never finishes. There is a soaring guitar solo by Rob McNelly that David Gilmour fans will love. No surprise to discover that this track was mixed on the same console as the classic “Dark Side Of The Moon“.
If you immerse yourself in the Steve Louw back-catalogue you will find recurring themes and reappearing characters, in a similar vein to Rodriguez, Piet Botha and many others. It is one of the things I love about listening to music, that there are rewards for paying extra attention.
This album can be played in the background, but if you give it your full awareness and dive into its depths you will be rewarded with poetic lyrics melded with great tunes, recorded by superb musicians.
Steve’s enthusiasm for life and love is expressed in every note in this superb creation. “Headlight Dreams” deserves to be listened to over and over again, and if you do, you will get something new every time.
Steve Louw on Social
By Kerneels Breytenbach
Old rockers never really retire; in fact if there’s still a flame burning in them they get better and better as the years go by. Steve Louw is such a rocker, and his new album, Headlight Dreams, is note-for-note proof.
In each of the guises we’ve come to know Louw over the years he’s shown a desire to grow and move on from his previous incarnations. The journey from All Night Radio to Big Sky to this album captures a lifetime of musical inspiration. And this album doesn’t have any fillers.
The collaboration with guitar legend Joe Bonamassa on the track Wind in Your Hair is exciting news. The entire album is a guitar-driven affair, as can be expected from Louw, but when Bonamassa lets rip the notes reverberate through your skull.
His appearance is thanks to Louw’s friendship with his long-time producer, sound maestro Kevin Shirley. Shirley had just finished recording Bonamassa’s Royal Tea album at London’s Abbey Road Studios when he and Louw met up at a Nashville studio to start work on Headlight Dreams. In between Shirley was putting the finishing touches on Royal Tea, so when Bonamassa popped into the studio Louw grabbed the moment and asked him to play on Wind in Your Hair. The result is a pure joy.
The songs on Headlight Dreams had their roots in a 8 000-km motorcycle trip Louw had undertaken across the length and breadth of South Africa. There are also references to trips across the US, along with introspection on the cruel, wonderful, crazy turns life sometimes takes. Louw says the motorcycle trip put him in a strange frame of mind, as if he was experiencing the open road and vast plains in slow and hyper motion at the same time.
Recorded in just three days in an old Nashville church building that had been converted into a studio, with Kevin Shirley behind the controls of a vintage Neve console, each track on the album is imbued with a warm, intimate sound. The combination of the building’s ambience and vintage equipment bring the best out of these recordings – just listen to the hard-hitting The Lost and Found.
Track by track
Crazy River: About a boat trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, featuring an impressive blend of rock and typically South African guitar patterns. The slide guitar is by studio ace Rob McNelley.
Wind in Your Hair: This track featuring Joe Bonamassa is about the contours of a long relationship. Glorious music with an amazing solo by Bonamassa, who’d only ever heard the song once before.
Don’t Wait: About thoughts experienced during a long road trip. The layered guitars have a lovely Tom Petty-feel and Louw’s vocal performance is among the best on the album.
Train Don’t Run: Louw is an ecology activist, as is clearly evident in the lyrics of this song. Excellent solo by McNelley.
Seven Roses: Heavenly rock with a tinkling piano; a buttkicking rocker that slides back into high gear every time it sounds as if Louw’s about to calm down.
Get Out Of My Heart: Can one ever understand love? I love the opening phrase: ‘I’d rather walk than drive another mile with you’ – after which Louw avoids her embrace. The ringing notes make one wonder if he ever did get that woman out of his system . . .
The Lost and Found: Inspired by his experiences on a Greyhound bus trip across the US. The energy and sheer oomph of the music makes it one of my favourites. #u*+ it, this song cooks!
Headlight Dreams: The first track recorded for the album. In a less frantic vein then The Lost and Found, yet the song gradually builds as Louw’s lyrics take in the contrasts between people, habits and their dangers. The multi-layered production includes guitars, organ and that welcome old sound of excellently recorded drums with each hit punching you in the stomach. Turn the volume up to eleven!
Heavy Weather: This song could be about the water crisis that hit Cape Town a few years ago. The music builds into a groovy boogie and McNelley’s guitar takes it to another level.
Queen Bee Maybe: There’s something of a swamp rock thing going on here. Louw says it was inspired by his attempts to remove a swarm of bees that had moved into the roof of his house – without getting stung. And just when you think the guitars are about to gather for a final showdown, Kev McKendree interrupts with a sweating, crying Hammond B3 solo, before letting the guitars finish the deal.
I absolutely love this album. I just hope we don’t have to wait another seven years before the next one – Louw should continue to travel and bring us the sounds they inspire!
Steve Louw – Headlight Dreams
Ou rockers raak nooit werklik stil nie. As hulle die ou vlam nog binne in hulle voel brand, raak hulle net beter met die jare. Steve Louw is een van hulle. Sy nuwe album, Headlight Dreams, bewys dit, noot vir noot.
In al die gedaantes waarin ons hom deur die jare leer ken het, het Louw met elke sprong vorentoe gebeur, en verbeter op sy vorige inkarnasies. Van All Night Radio na Big Sky na hierdie album het hy ’n lewe van musikale besieling vasgevang. En hierdie keer is daar geen snitte waarop hy die pas markeer nie.
Uiteraard sal die samewerking met die legendariese kitaarspeler Joe Bonamassa meeste mense laat regop sit. Die snit is “Wind in Your Hair”. Die hele album is kitaar-gedrewe, soos mens van Louw verwag – maar wanneer Bonamassa inklim, galm die note dwarsdeur mens se skedel.
Bonamassa se deelname geskied danksy Louw se vriendskap met die klank-maestro Kevin Shirley. Shirley het pas in Londen se Abbey Road-ateljees die opnames van Bonamassa se Royal Tea-album hanteer, en is toe na Nashville saam met Steve Louw, om Headlight Dreams op te neem. Shirley moes terselfdertyd laaste retouching doen vir Royal Tea, en Bonamassa moes laaste toevoegings bylas. Net daar slaan Louw toe, en praat Bonamassa om om op “Wind in Your Hair” te speel. Die resultaat is suiwer plesier.
Headlight Dreams se wortels lê in ’n baie lang road trip wat Louw op ’n motorfiets kruis en dwars deur Suid-Afrika onderneem het; daar is ook verwysings na reise in die VSA, asook die soort retrospeksie wat mens doen as jy nadink oor die wrede, wonderlike, waansinnige draaie wat jou lewenspad gemaak het. Louw sê sy motorfietsrit het hom in ’n vreemde skedelspasie geplaas, waar hy op die langpad deur die vlaktes dinge tegelyk in slow motion en hyperspeed beleef het.
Opgeneem in die bestek van drie dae in ’n ou kerkgebou in Nashville, met Kevin Shirley agter die kontroles van ’n ou Neve-klankbank, word elke snit op die album omgeef deur ’n warmte van klank, ’n ander soort intimiteit as wat met digitale opnames geskep sou gewees het. Baie van die klank-kombinasies baat baie meer by die analoog-opnames. Luister maar hou daar gat geskop word op “The Lost and Found”
’n Kort kyk na al die snitte:
“Crazy River” – Oor ’n kanoe-rit op die Coloradorivier, met ’n indrukwekkende vermenging van rock met tipies Suid-Afrikaanse kitaarpatrone. Slide-kitaar deur Rob McNelley.
“Wind in Your Hair” – Die snit met Joe Bonamassa. Handel oor die kontoere van ’n lang liefdesverhouding. Verruklike musiek, en die solo van Bonamassa is absoluut amazing as jy in gedagte hou dat hy die liedjie net een keer vantevore gehoor het.
“Don’t Wait” – Oor die gedagtes wat opkom tydens ’n road trip – met ’n heerlike Tom Petty-gevoel in die lae en lae kitare. Louw se sang van die beste op die album.
“Train Don’t Run” – Louw is ’n ekologie-aktivis, wat hier baie duidelik spreek. Uitstekende solo deur Rob McNelley.
“Seven Roses” – Hemelse rock, tintelende klavierklanke en absolute gatskop rock elke keer net wanneer dit klink of Louw gaan kalmeer.
“Get Out Of My Heart” – Kan mens liefde ooit verstaan? Ek’s mal oor die openingsfrase, “I’d rather walk than drive another mile with you”, en daarna maak Louw hom skaars uit haar omhelsing in ’n liedjie waarin die hangende note ’n mens laat wonder of hy die vrou heeltemal uit sy gestel gekry het. Musiek en melodie wat baie lank in jou gemoed bly draai. Louw se sang van die beste wat ek hom nog ooit hoor doen het.
“The Lost and Found” – Geïnspireer deur sy ondervindinge tydens ’n Greyhound-reis in die VSA, en die energie en oemf van die musiek maak dit een van my gunstelinge. Hierdie liedjie kook, #o* it!
“Headlight Dreams” – Die eerste snit wat vir die album opgeneem is. Veel meer bedaard as “The Lost and Found”, maar dit bou stelselmatig op soos Louw se lirieke die kontraste tussen mense, gewoontes en gevaarlikhede opbou. Hier is baie lae musiek te hoor, van die kitare tot die orrel tot die ou-ou genot van tromme wat baie goed opgeneem is, sodat jy die slae op jou maag voel. Draai die volume oop tot by elf.
“Heavy Weather” – ’n Liedjie wat vermoedelik Kaapstad se waterkrisis van ’n paar jaar gelede in gedagte het. Die musiek ontwikkel in ’n lekker boogie en McNelley se kitaarspel lig ’n mens uit jou gestoelte.
“Queen Bee Maybe” – Daar is iets van ’n swamp=rock gevoel hier aan die gang. Louw vertel dat dit geïnspireer is deur ’n ondervinding wat hy gehad het toe bye in sy huis se dak ingetrek het, en die proses om die swerm ongeskonde uit te lok. En net wanneer ’n mens begin verwag dat die kitare gaan saamkom vir ’n sluitende magsvertoon, tree Kev McKendree na vore met ’n solo op die Hammond B3 wat sweet en skree. En daarna sluit die kitare die verrigtinge af.
Ek is heeltemal versot op hierdie album. Ek hoop nie daar gaan weer sewe jaar van stilte hierop volg nie – Louw moet meer gaan reis, en klank aangee na ons!
Steve Louw is a storyteller. From the slow train of 1990’s ‘Waiting On The Dawn’ that “takes us back to the dreams and hopes we had when we were young”, to the restless wanderer of 2008’s ‘The Wind Blows’, the singer-songwriter has created imagery as vivid as the music that accompanies it.
‘Headlight Dreams’, Louw’s first international solo release, is no different.
Inspired by such adventures as an 8000-km motorbike jaunt around Southern Africa, a canoe trip through the Grand Canyon, and a two-month Greyhound bus trek across the United States, its 10 tracks are the soundtrack to a 1974 National Geographic photo-essay on the US heartland. There are winding rivers, dusty roads, sweeping plains, muddy waters, railway tracks, one-horse towns, and rocky mountains, populated by renegades, broken gamblers, dreamers, loners, and an outlaw couple.
Theirs are stories of hope, despair, loss, and redemption, amplified not only by the beauty and desolation of their settings, but by how they’re conveyed. Louw’s voice and acoustic guitar are intentionally front and centre of the landscapes created by four A-grade Nashville session musicians and Kevin Shirley’s warm, earthy production.
So, no matter how uplifting the kwela-style guitars and jaunty keys of album opener ‘Crazy River’, they’re almost no match for the joy in Louw’s voice as he sings of campfires, full moons, and senoritas.
On the title track, Kev McHendry’s rich organ swells, Rob McNelley’s nimble guitar licks, and the swaggering groove of drummer Greg Morrow and bass player Alison Prestwood are the perfect backdrop to an impassioned vocal about lovers on the run.
Summer-in-a-song ‘Wind In Your Hair’ joins the pantheon of top-down, foot-down highway anthems with McHendry’s glistening keys, McNelley’s perfectly placed runs, sizzling Joe Bonamassa solo, and lines like “I look down the road/ I see you standing there/ With the sunlight on your face/ And the wind in your hair”.
No-nonsense honky-tonk rocker ‘The Lost And Found’ kicks up some real dirt as it gallops along to images of too much red wine, deals with the devil, and hearts left layin’ around town, while the steamin’ ‘Heavy Weather’ makes the inspired pairing of vintage blues and climate change.
But it’s seven-minute ‘Train Don’t Run’ that best sums up the combined genius of Louw and Shirley, friends since the 1980s. Lyrics that are both personal – the singer-songwriter’s grandfather was a railroad man – and global – the idea that railways symbolise humans’ misguided attempts to tame nature – are paired with slow-building music that can best be described as cinematic.
The producer, using his years of experience with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Black Crowes, Australian superstar Jimmy Barnes, Bonamassa, and especially the triple lead guitars of Iron Maiden, knows just how to create enough space to let each individual musician shine, while maintaining the right tension needed to hold together an epic masterpiece that, in turn, anchors Louw’s first album in seven years.
From The South African
Headlight Dreams is the first international solo release by Steve Louw. The South African chatted to the South African singer-songwriter and his dog, Ringo.
by Jason Curtis
Steve Louw is something of a rare South African treasure. This naturally gifted singer-songwriter is responsible for some of the past four decades’ finest pop and rock airtime, thanks to a disarming humbleness that’s afforded him the ears and respect of some of the music industry’s true heavyweights.
Headlight Dreams was released globally by SONY ATV on 7 May, testament that this one-time All Night Radio lead singer and celebrated solo artist in his own right, is still achieving extraordinary feats, in part due to his rich network of fans — many of whom are world-renowned producers, mastering legends and multi-platinum selling musicians.
STEVE LOUW’S ‘HEADLIGHT DREAMS’ JOURNEY
Chatting with him from his little slice of heaven in the Tsitsikamma, along with his dog, Ringo, Steve unpacked his Headlight Dreams journey.
SEVEN YEARS OF PERCOLATING AND THREE DAYS IN NASHVILLE
It took seven years to realise his latest body of work, which was recorded in Nashville along with his long-time friend and producer Kevin Shirley (John Hiatt, Joe Satriani, Led Zeppelin, The Black Crowes). Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and genius guitarist Joe Bonamassa also pitched in.
“It’s really about the songs,” Steve defends the delay. “Having something to say, so yes, it took a little longer, but strangely enough, since making this album and working with Kevin (Shirley) again, it’s made it so much easier for me.”
“I’ve since written a whole batch of songs and, in writing those songs, I now know the band I’m going to play with, and I can imagine what they’ll do with them, so the Highlight Dreams journey has been such a great experience. Kevin did such a great job and we managed to make a good album in only three days!”
Having the confidence to leave the house and present the songs to the group of musicians Kevin had corralled, was equally disarming for the respected veteran.
“When I wrote these songs, I was too close to be objective as to each one’s merits. Especially after seven years.”
These songs had been percolating for an extended period.
“That’s the thing,” Steve agrees. “That’s the thing. Can I still do it? And right up to the time that I got on the plane to fly to Nashville, Kevin just wouldn’t listen to the songs. I said I’ll send you 15 songs, and he said, no. Just come to the studio with your 10 best songs; and when we walked into the studio on the first day, he said right, what’s your first song?”
SEIZE THE MOMENT
On that day, Steve played and sang his first pick to the band. “I was well prepared,” he recalls. “Upon listening to it, they said ‘cool!’. I mean, these guys score it down as you play it. They write themselves notes and 15 minutes later, there’s a recorded track. It’s mind-blowing!”
Working with that level of expertise is sobering, but one needs to remember Steve and Kevin have been working together since 1986’s second All Night Radio album, The Killing Floor, so this was common ground for both titans.
KNOCKING ON HEAVEN’S DOOR
To record Headlight Dreams, Kevin chose a converted church that offered a classic analogue Neve console which saw Steve recording his latest album as he would have captured his earlier albums in the 1980s.
“Kevin likes that studio,” Steve says of the decision to record in God’s house.
“He said to me, a year before, when are we going to make an album again? At the time I kind of shrugged and said that I didn’t know,” he continues.
“Kevin then reminded me that he’s booked up a year in advance, so best I commit to a date if Headlight Dreams was ever going to see the light of day. He then said he was due to be in Nashville on the 28th of February 2020, to produce Joe Bonamassa’s next album, now remember this was in late February 2019.”
That was that. The dates went into the calendar and Steve bought his ticket to fly.
At that stage, Steve already had 10 or 12 songs ready, while three more were written in the build-up to flying out to the US. “I was concerned that the tracks might not be strong enough. Kevin had to remind me that I could write great songs because he’d produced so many of them in the past,” he recalls.
With lingering self-doubt, even after a nearly 40-year career in music, Steve’s quick to point out just why that was for him. “It’s such magic or ephemeral process that you think to yourself that I was lucky then, it’ll surely never happen again?
“People go to law school and become lawyers, they know what that is and what it means, but because music is such a magical thing; you’re taking something out of the air and turning it into something other people can hear, there’s nothing that guarantees a positive outcome.
I kept thinking, I know I did it before, but that was just luck,” he recalls.
LADY LUCK AND STEVE LOUW
That said, four decades in luck has never left Steve’s side.
Fast-forward to February 2020, pre-lockdown: Steve arrives in Nashville and heads into a studio where the only person he knows is Kevin. The rest of the band brought together to record are strangers to him.
“I felt like I was exposing myself and I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of people who are at the top of their game,” he remembers. “You don’t want to be “that guy”, seen as a hack who’s only there because he’s Kevin’s friend from way back when. You just don’t.”
GOING FOR BROKE
“I always knew they’d play their part, and it would be a good sounding record,” Steve adds. “People will always be polite and kind, but you can see in their eyes whether they’re getting off on it, or merely going through the motions. Fortunately for me, when we all walked away, the consensus was we can’t wait to do the next one. Getting that kind of affirmation from your peers is worth its weight in gold.”
“Kevin is the kindest, most loyal, greatest friend you could ever have,” Steve asserts. “He’s busy, everybody wants to work with him and yet he’s so invested and committed to everyone and everything he touches.
“So, after we’d said our goodbyes, I headed to the terminal with my guitar and backpack when suddenly, over the PA, I heard my name being called because I’d forgotten my carry-on luggage. And when I got to it, Kevin was wearing a big smile because he had convinced the airport staff to break protocol to alert me.”
I flew to New York on the 3rd of March, en route back to South Africa, and Kevin headed to LA to film with Trevor Rabin who was scoring Joe Bonamassa songs with a full orchestra for a live concert film they were going to film last August at Red Rock in Colorado.
Steve’s wedding anniversary was coming up two days later and unbeknownst to him at the time, Kevin sent “Wind In Your Hair”, the track Joe Bonamassa played on, to mastering legend, Bob Ludwig and within a day Bob had mastered the track and Kevin sent it on to Steve on the day of his anniversary.
“When I got it, I played it on my little Bose speaker out into New York. It was one of the greatest moments ever!” To top it off Bob sent an e-mail with the final mastered track saying, “What a wonderful song, what a wonderful vocal performance, I loved working on this”. “I practically did a summersault,” Steve recalls.
What Headlight Dreams confirms, at every step of the journey for Steve, is that his work is worthy, even before it’s released to the world. If anything, the calibre of not only the players, its producer and mastering engineer, all endorsed Headlight Dreams as the extraordinary body of work that it is, and soon you’ll get to applaud it too.
It’s hard to believe the last music we heard from Steve Louw arrived seven long years ago. With the wait now finally over, fans right around the world are already embracing the pop-rock icon’s return with arms wide open. The past year has been a rich and hugely rewarding one for Louw. Not only did Louw record his brand-new album, Headlight Dreams, in Nashville along with his long-time friend and producer extraordinaire Kevin Shirley (John Hiatt, Joe Satriani, Led Zeppelin, The Black Crowes), but Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter and genius guitarist Joe Bonamassa also pitched up and added his magic to the record.
To boot, Sony ATV, upon hearing the finished album, offered Louw his first international solo artist record deal.
The album, which is out now, already has two singles on high rotation, “Crazy River” and “Wind in your Hair”; the latter is the one that’s quite literally blowing up all around the world. In its first week of release in the US, the track landed at the highly coveted number two position on the Billboard ACC Folk Chart, ahead of the likes of the equally commendable Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi.
“Wind in your Hair” is the track that sports Joe Bonamassa guitar fills and outstanding middle-eight. The single has had over 100,000 plays on Spotify in under three weeks.
With 10 tracks captured in an arresting three-day recording sprint, producer Kevin Shirley channelled each one of Headlight Dreams’ songs through a vintage Neve console inside of a converted church.
“From the first moment, I loved the acoustics of the studio and the vibe created by the wonderful Nashville musicians with their great feel and playing, drawing you into a world shimmering in the half-light, just out of reach,” Louw shares.
A consummate storyteller, a supremely gifted guitarist and a genuinely wonderful human being, Louw’s Headlight Dreams is a beautiful statement.
I caught up with the Cape Town resident last week.
The new decade means: Radical carbon emission cuts.
Fame is about: An illusion.
Retirement will happen when: You have lived beyond three figures
I don’t do:Fake people.
My music is about: Everyday experiences.
What is the most enjoyable aspect of your work? Playing live and singing.
The song you must do in every show: “Waiting for the Dawn”
Any funny moments on stage: When the power tripped, half the show was acoustic; we just kept playing. Luckily, the power came back and then we had an electric show.
My style icon: Bob Dylan.
What is your most treasured possession? My 1964 Epiphone as played by John (Lennon), Paul (McCartney) and George (Harrison).
It’s your round, what are you drinking? Glenmorangie Single Malt.
What makes you stand out? The stage lights.
If you were not a musician, what would you do? Conservation.
Who would play you in a Hollywood blockbuster and why? Edward Norton; we both smirk.
Pick five words to describe yourself: Musical, songwriter, guitar player, dendrophile, singer.
Five favourite SA albums:
GBB – Eet Kreef
Baxtop – Work It Out
Juluka – Scatterlings
Tananas – Tananas
Tribe After Tribe – Power
What is your favourite word? Truth.
Favourite fashion garment: My leather flying jacket.
Give us some real proper slang and what it means: Lank kiff: Awesome, great.
Your greatest achievement: My family.
What do you complain about most often? Dishonesty.
What is your fear? Large puff adders.
Happiness is: Riding motorcycles.
Where would you like to be right now? Where I am.
Do you do charity work and, if you do, what do you do? Yes, conservation.
A collection of Blues tunes from the Steve Louw catalogue.
From Jive Talking & Eyeballing
by Ernesto Garcia Marques, April 2021,
edited by Brian Currin, May 2021
Anyone who supported local South African music will remember All Night Radio, the blues rock band from Stellenbosch who were truly world class. I have been meaning to interview Steve for the longest time and now that he is about to release a new album it seemed like the perfect time to interview him now. I would like to give a big shout out to Martin Myers and the sterling work he is doing as CEO of Music Exchange and Triple M Entertainment. Martin is handling the PR for Steve Louw and is also his manager. I contacted him about doing this interview. Thanks Martin 😀
By way of introduction many of you should remember this song, recorded live at Ellis Park Stadium, 1985….
Ernesto: Howzit Steve, hope you are doing well? No need to ask if you are still rocking as I am really thrilled to hear that you have a new album coming out soon but more about that later… I believe ANR started at Stellenbosch University where you met Nico Burger and Rob Nagel and your combined love for the Blues and Rock ‘n Roll got you out there and playing with David Kramer and Lesley Rae Dowling in various clubs and student venues. When was this exactly and what songs did you play at those early gigs? Did you play any covers or only original songs? How did you get involved in music and who were your main influences?
Steve: Hi Ernesto, Great to hear from you! I met Rob Nagel and Willem Moller in 1976 at the Stellenbosch Folk Club and we have been friends ever since. It was great place to get heard and there was always an enthusiastic audience of music lovers. Most of the artists wanted to showcase their own songs, but there were also versions of other artists’ songs. I can remember doing a cover of Gallis Pole (Gallows Pole) on 12 string guitar, thinking I was covering a Zeppelin song! I never dreamed that 25 years later my bud Kevin Shirley would be working with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant! My Dad had a DJ friend in Johannesburg, and one day he brought home a copy of Duane Eddy, ‘Have Twangy Guitar Will Travel’ and I was mesmerised by the sound. Another of my earliest memories is hearing Fats Domino sing Blueberry Hill on my Mom’s car radio and I felt that I was being taken to another mysterious and beautiful place. I started playing piano when I was 8, and when I found my brother’s discarded GalloTone guitar that was it. Willem and I had a band called Rockaway which gigged doing originals and covers. Willem was always into recording, and we started doing demos of our songs between gigs.
I formed ANR in 1983 with Rob, Pitchie Rommelaere and Nico (Burger), as Willem had left Cape Town for Johannesburg with his band Nothing Personal, which had started to do well. Our first drummer was Ronnie Milne, a great Scottish drummer. I had started recording with Willem at a Studio in Cape Town in 1979 and 1980, and we did demos of my songs and then focussed on two songs which we thought had a shot. I finished them up when I moved to New York City in 1981. After trying to get going in NYC, and having some interest from A+M Records, I decided to come back to Cape Town and form All Night Radio.
E: ANR broke up and Steve headed for New York City and Rob Nagel went to Hamburg, Germany. Two years later Rob and Steve decided to return to Cape Town and, re-uniting with Nico, used the Mother City as the base for their assault on the record industry. Then came months of all-night rehearsals, live gigs to test the songs, more rehearsals, more gigs, and live recordings until the band felt they were ready to record.
Why did the band break up? Did you and Rob intend going overseas to gain experience before returning to give it a full go in South Africa? Did either of you play live while overseas or did you go and see as many bands as you could, or both? What bands really blew you away and inspired you with All Night Radio?
S: So we formed ANR, when I came back to Cape Town in March 1983. When I was in NYC, I saw so many great bands! It was a really inspirational time and also quite tough to survive! I met lots of musicians and recording engineers, and we would go into their studios during quiet times, like a Sunday afternoon, and work on songs. I remember walking in the streets of New York in 1981 hearing the Stones’ Start Me Up blasting from every car, shop and taxi wherever you went. It was incredible! Springsteen released Nebraska in 1982 and it played over and over on my cassette machine. The songs really resonated with me and I realised that the art of songwriting and storytelling were one.
That album really inspired me and I bought a 4 track cassette recorder and started making demos. All the first demos of the songs that were released on the first ANR album The Heart’s the Best Part were recorded on that machine, which I still have! I also remember a stand out gig by Elvis Costello, during his Imperial Bedroom tour which was just mind blowing. I knew that I had to really focus on songwriting to connect with people.
All Night Radio’s first release was the double A sided single: Breaking Hearts/Sea Side Love which was released on 1st September 1984 and what a great song it was…
This was on the other side and my own personal favourite…
E: That was a really good single Steve and though the blues influence was there these tracks have a real ’80’s feel. Were you listening to ’80’s music at the time because I can hear a little Billy Idol, Springsteen and Simple Minds influence on these tracks; meant as a compliment of course 😉. I believe your intention was to go back to basics with your sound and this was the first result of that….
S: Yes, the 80’s; what happened was the sound of drums completely changed. Everybody was competing to be heard on the radio and the drums, particularly the snare just got massive! When we recorded The Hearts the Best Part, we put a mike on the metal freight elevator wall, took all the toms off the kit, and placed the kit in front of the lift’s gaping mouth! It seemed like a good idea at the time, and that is why the drums are so in your face. Luckily the 80’s passed!
E: The single received a very favourable review from Andrew Donaldson in his review in the Cape Times of 5 October 1984: “The first single from All Night Radio’s debut album was released last week. The double A-sided rocker, Breaking Hearts, c/w Sea Side Love, is a no-nonsense uncompromising recording debut, and an exciting glimpse of what the group intends to offer on its forthcoming album. Produced in Cape Town by New York-based John Rollo, “Breaking Hearts” is probably the noisiest and freshest-sounding rock single produced in this country to date. Guitarist Nico Burger effortlessly establishes himself as a wunderkind here in one neat and fluid solo. ANR think they’re a great group. They probably are.” All Night Radio Released their first album, The Heart’s the Best Part in 1984 and you can listen to the album in full here but please go out and buy the album….
E: There is a very interesting story connected to the first ANR single and album and I can remember reading about that in the Argus Tonight newspaper and instead of repeating that article I will try to tell the story in my own words. So, Steve Louw was going to Joburg at the same time as Little Steven (Van Zandt) was in South Africa. A local journalist from Cape Town could not go to Joburg so he drew up some questions, arranged a meeting with Little Steven and gave these to Steve. Louw saw this as the perfect opportunity to promote his own music and looking for a break, dumped the questions and when he did meet Little Steven he asked “Will you produce my band?”.
Steve also insisted that Little Steven listen to the tapes (of the first album) to which Steven replied: “Er, I’d really like to,” said Little, “but, you see, I just can’t spare the time…” Unperturbed, Louw expressed his band’s willingness to wait. The persistence and determination paid off as Van Zandt told Steve that he could not do it but he could introduce Louw to the co-producer of his album, John Rollo. (Rollo was a British producer who lived in the USA who had produced: Little Steven & the Disciples Of Soul, Roberta Flack, Stevie Nicks, The Kinks and George Benson amongst others). Transatlantic phone calls followed, finance was discussed and after listening to the tapes, Rollo came out to Cape Town while leaving George Benson waiting…. Watched by Louw, Rollo completed the mixing of the single and subsequent album in his New Jersey studio, and that is why it sounds so good.
E: Phew Steve, that must have taken a lot of guts. Were you nervous meeting Little Steven but also determined not to miss out on this career altering opportunity? Did you really just drop the interview questions completely and just ask him to produce your first album? He must have been dumbfounded and impressed at the same time?
S: No, I was freelancing as a record reviewer for The Cape Times, so that I could get all the new releases from the Record Companies. I offered to interview Little Steven for the Cape Times and they said sure. I was really keen to meet him as I loved his work as an Arranger/Producer with Springsteen, Southside Johnny and Gary “US” Bonds. I also loved his debut first album, and he had just released Voice of America his second album. We had a great time talking music, studios and production and a 20 minute time slot stretched into hours. He asked me if I was gigging and recording, and said he would love to hear some of the songs. I had the cassette of our live 4 track recordings with me, and the band sounded good after a year of gigging. He listened to the set while I took photos to go with the piece on him. I can still see him in his bandana and leopard print coat looking into the camera while listening to ANR on my walkman. It was a great moment in my life. Anyway he liked what he heard and put me in touch with John Rollo in New Jersey. John agreed to come to Cape Town and work with us on Little Steven’s recommendation, so that meeting was the start of my career.
E: Rollo must have been impressed right off the bat with your sound that made him come out to South Africa and produce your album though I am sure a few words from Little Steven helped that project on its way 😉. Do you know if Van Zandt ever heard the album and I sure hope that you sent him a copy…..?
S: Yes, he came back to South Africa for a second visit in August 1984, (I first met him in May 1984), before starting on his Sun City project. I brought the album, which had just been pressed, (literally hot off the press), to him at his hotel in Johannesburg. Journalist Andrew Donaldson also published a review of the album in the Cape Times Funfinder of 9 November 1984; “All Night Radio’s The Heart’s The Best Part is a thunderous debut, with its hard-driving snare-drum guitar orientated sound (Springsteen a la mode). Forget the “well-produced, technically perfect” spiel (it is a remarkable album in that aspect) and listen to the songs. Singer Steve Louw displays a talent for crafting songs that are free of obvious and clichéd hooks. They’re energetic, they’re thoughtfully constructed and, what’s important, they have a shelf life that takes you far past the first listening.”
E: Jip, I agree. It is a true South African classic. The second ANR album; The Killing Floor was released in 1986 on Previous Records and was produced by Cape Town’s own Kevin “Caveman” Shirley who has produced albums by Journey, Iron Maiden, Rush, Led Zeppelin, Joe Bonamassa, Beth Hart, Marya Roxx, Dream Theater, The Springbok Nude Girls, HIM, Tyler Bryant, Mr. Big, and Europe.
Did All Night Radio ever play any gigs with Kevin’s band The Council or did you only meet him later on as a producer? Your album must have been one of the first albums that he produced?
S: Yes we were often on the same bill at festivals, and he had been blown away by how our first album sounded, and was keen to do our second album. Kevin had already done a lot of albums. He has always been really busy.
E: Awesome. Did the above musicians come in and do their parts or did you jam and record with them in the studio? Who were the Glee Singers? Rob Nagel had left the band at that stage to join the Blues Broers hadn’t he?
S: We used Richard Pickett on our first album, and Richard Devey played live with ANR in 1984/1985. ANR stopped gigging in early 1986, but I still kept writing, and I love recording, so Kevin offered to produce an album with me. He put the band together and we cut all the tracks live. I love Tim’s solo on The Killing Floor. The Glee Singers were a gospel group that came in and sang Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica in the studio. Rob formed the Flaming Firestones after ANR.
E: The album contained seven Louw originals with a storming cover of Here Comes the Night by Them (which featured Van Morrison) (also covered by David Bowie on his Pin Ups album) and The Killing Floor by Howlin’ Wolf and here is the original of the latter…
E: Listen to the album in full here but please go out and buy people. Support our own…
E: The Killing Floor features the cream of South African musicians including: Steve Louw: Vocals and acoustic guitar, Nico Burger: Electric Guitar, Slide Guitar, Dobro, Mike Campbell: Electric Bass, Tony Drake: Piano, Organ, Synthesisers, Herman Eugster (of Ella Mental): Drums, Mike Faure: Saxophone, The Glee Singers: Choir on ‘Fire of Reign’, Tim Parr: Guitar on ‘The Killing Floor’ and André de Villiers, Tracey Dogon, Mynie Grove, Tam Minter: Backing Vocals.
What made you decide to include those two covers, though you do them really well? Were they live favourites perhaps?
S: Kevin thought they would be great songs to cover, and he was right!
E: When and why did All Night Radio stop/split and when did you start with your Big Sky project/band? Big Sky was essentially your band, a solo project where you were joined by some of South Africa’s finest. Would I be right in saying that?
S: ANR stopped touring in April 1986, and The Killing Floor was recorded after that. I just kept doing what I always do which is write songs, and when you have ten good ones you can make an album! Some times it just takes longer to come up with at least ten good songs. Kevin and I just started making another album, and both Rob and Nico play on the album. I had come across a great band in Johannesburg, Ymage, and I thought it would be great to cut the tracks with them. So we recorded with Godla Mgcinga (drums) Jimmy Mngwandi (bass) and Don Laka (keyboards) at UCA Studios in Cape Town where I recorded the two ANR albums.
E: The first Big Sky album, Waiting for the Dawn was released in 1990 on Gallo Records and re-issued in June 2001 on the Epic label and it is indeed epic! The album was produced by Kevin Shirley again and features more of the top South African musicians including; Steve Louw: Acoustic Guitar, vocals, Nico Burger: Guitar, Honest Rod Nagel: Harp (previously on bass), Don Laka: Piano, keyboards, Robbie McIntosh: Guitar, Slide guitar, Rupert Mellor: Accordion, Piano, McCoy Mrubata: Sax, Steve Newman: Acoustic Guitar, Jimmy Mngwandi: Bass, Godla Mgcinga: Drums, Benmont Tench: Piano, Hammond organ, Waddy Wachtel: Guitar, Roy Bittan: piano on ‘Here Comes The Night’, Cape Town Highlanders (The 1000 Pipers): bagpipes on ‘Waiting For The Dawn’ . The Atlantic City Horns: Horns (arranged by Mike Campbell), The Long Street Gang: Backing vocals.
Stunning selection of South Africa’s top musicians and the legendary American Guitarist Waddy Wachtel who has played with the Everly Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Warren Zevon, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, Don Henley and Jackson Browne and co-writing songs with Keith Richards in the X-Pensive Winos. How on earth did you persuade Waddy to play on your album? Did you meet him when you were in the USA or did you send him some demos?
S: When we were mixing the album, the engineer Shelly Yakus thought that ‘Diamonds and Dirt’ would sound great with Hammond and another rhythm guitar, so he called up Benmont and Waddy, and as a favour to Shelly, they came down to the studio and played on the song.
E: This is the brilliant Waiting for the dawn title track and the album also features a Radio Edit towards the end…
Another great song off the album is this one but every track off Waiting for the Dawn is really good…
and another which has a lekker South African sing along chorus…
E: The second Big Sky album, Horizon was released in 1995 and with it Louw clinched the “Best Rock Act” of 1996 award at the FNB Music Awards. The album was mixed by Rob Jacobs and Shelly Yakus and produced by Steve Louw himself. Horizon featured: Steve Louw: vocals, acoustic guitar, Scott Crago: drums, percussion, Mark Harris: bass, Benmont Tench: Hammond organ, piano, Tommy Girvin: electric & acoustic guitars, backing vocals, Mona Lisa & Terry Young: backing vocals on ‘One Cut With A Knife’, Kip Lennon & Mark Lennon: backing vocals on ‘Bye Bye Johnny’ & ‘Kathleen’. This is one of the great tracks off Horizon…
The album sold over 10,000 copies…
E: Well done Steve, that is probably your most successful album then?
S: Yes, ‘One Cut with a Knife’ connected with people, and ‘Kathleen’ got a lot of Airplay. My favourite is ‘Strange Room’, so there were three songs that got people listening.
E: Going Down With Mister Green, the third Big Sky album was released in 1997 by Polygram and was produced by Steve Louw. The album featured: Steve Louw: vocals, guitar, Scott Crago: drums, percussion, Mark Harris: bass, Benmont Tench: keyboards, Tommy Girvin: guitar, Tim Pierce: sitar on ‘Wasted’. Another really good selection of songs and you can listen to all of them here but please buy if you like…
E: Great album and you must have been really pleased with the result but also sad to learn that your former All Night Radio guitarist Nico Burger had died (sometime in 1996). How did that affect you and did it change or inspire the recording of this album?
S: It was really sad, and I wrote ‘Wasted’ for Nico. He was an incredible musician, really just genius! He was very intuitive both live and in the studio and came up with some incredible performances. His playing really makes the ANR albums as does his playing on ‘Waiting for the Dawn’ .
E: Steve Louw and Big Sky opened for Rodriguez on his 1998 South African Tour.
The 1999 album Best of the Decade featured the best songs Big Sky recorded and every single song is a classic. Pick your own favourite. Mine is probably Diamonds and Dirt but that changes, which shows how good the songs really are.
Were any of the songs on this best of compilation CD re-recorded, remixed or remastered or changed in any way from the versions on your previous Big Sky albums?
S: No, they were just taken from the albums, but I recorded two new songs for the compilation with Kevin, ‘Destiny’ and ‘Skin Deep’.
E: Louw returned with an album of new Big Sky songs with the Beyond the Blue album on 9 September 2002 and the album was produced by Kevin Shirley again. The album featured the ex South African musicians; Anton Fig: drums, percussion, Keith Lentin: bass, harmonica, acoustic guitar on track 9, Blondie Chaplin (The Flames/ Beach Boys/ Rolling Stones): guitars, vocals, Pat Thrall: guitars, Adam Holzman: keyboards and of course, Steve Louw: vocals, acoustic guitar. In 2003 Steve Louw composed Amandla for Madiba’s 46664 benefit concert with Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics, Anastacia and Brian May of Queen. The song was performed by Bono and Beyoncé. Here is that song from this historic concert…
E: Wow, aside from co-writing that song were you involved in Madiba’s 46664 benefit concert and did you perform there? Did you ever get the opportunity to meet the great man?
S: I was lucky enough to be on stage for the performance of the song Amandla, and it was great being backstage and watching so many incredible musicians perform. I think the highlight for me was watching Johnny (Clegg) sing ‘Asimbonanga’ for Nelson Mandela in the audience. It was a riveting performance.
E: The Trancas Canyon album was released in 2008 by Sony Music and was recorded in a house in a canyon in Malibu, California, over three days. The album featured: Steve Louw: vocals, acoustic guitar, Blondie Chaplin: guitar, backing vocals, Pat Thrall: guitar, Rick Melick: keyboards, Anton Fig: drums, Keith Lentin: bass. You can listen to the here but please buy…
E: Always thought that this album has a real warm, easy flowing homely sound as it was with the Travelling Wilburys. It sounds like you all had a lot of fun making this album. Can you tell us about the recordings?
S: The studio is up in hills above where Kevin lived in Malibu. It was done over a weekend as Anton had to get back to NYC to do his Letterman show on Monday. Its always great when Keith, Blondie and Anton get together as they are all friends for over forty years, so it is a lot of laughs ,and of course brilliant playing, from them.
E: Heart & Soul was a live DVD “Recorded live in front of a sell-out crowd at Cape Town’s historic Little Theatre. The show captures iconic South African songwriter Steve Louw and his band performing classic material from their other albums as well as previously unreleased songs.” This took place in 2009 and the recording featured : Steve Louw: Acoustic Guitar and Vocals, Willem Moller: Electric and Slide Guitars, Jacques Steyn: Double Bass, Electric Bass and Mandolin, Simon Orange: Keyboards, Tea-Chest Bass, Rob Nagel: Harmonica These are the videos from that show…
E: So good to see you at home in Cape Town playing with your blues buddies and having fun. Did you enjoy that performance? Did you do any more shows like that at the time or was this a once off performance?
S: It was a once off show at the Little Theatre, and as you can see we had a blast!
E: What have you been doing since this live performance and the release of your latest album? Were you in South Africa during the Covid-19 lockdown in South Africa in 2020?
S: Yes I have been living in South Africa the whole time trying to come up with ten good songs! Yes, I left New York on March 7  right at the very end of the beginning of the time before.
E: On 6th April 2021 Steve Louw returned with a new single; Crazy River and you can watch that right here…
E: Louw says of the song “once took a long canoe trip down the Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon and out again. It was a very spacy spiritual place and it felt like I was on a journey to the middle of the earth. I wrote this after the trip. On one level the song is about the river trip and the journey deep inside the raw power and beating heart of nature, but it also reflects on time, our time on Earth, how we experience it, and how the bonds of deep personal relationships with our fellow travellers nurture our souls. I played the acoustic guitar using a few African-style riffs and the band picked up on that feel. Guitarist Rob McNelley contributed beautiful slide guitar.” The song is from Steve’s new album; Headlight Dreams which is due to be released on May 7, 2021. The album can be pre-ordered right here…. https://orcd.co/SteveLouwHeadlightDreams
The album was produced by Kevin Shirley and mastered by Bob Ludwig.
Can you tell us about the latest album Steve? I believe the song, Wind In Your Hair features the legendary Joe Bonamassa on guitar. Awesome, who else plays on the album with you? Where was the album recorded?
S: We recorded in Nashville with a great band that Kevin put together. Greg Morrow on drums, Alison Prestwood on bass, Rob McNelley on guitar, and Kevin McKendree on Keyboards
E: Are you going to have a South African launch for the new album or at least a few shows in Cape Town? I know a lot of people would like to see you perform live in Cape Town again…
S: I would love to, it just depends on how things pan out.
E: Well, I think we have pretty much covered your career and recordings but if there is anything we left out please tell us about that. What would you say has been the highlight of your career, the defining moment that you will never forget? Also, any funny incidents during recordings or live shows that still make you smile?
S: I think meeting Stevie van Zandt in 1984 was a career defining moment for me.
E: Any last words for all the people who have followed your career? What do you still hope to achieve musically and do you have any future plans after this latest album has been released?
S: Keep looking forward to the next ten good songs.
E: Thanks so much Steve and I wish you everything of the best for your future endeavours. Check out Steve Louw’s website here…. http://www.stevelouw.com/ Soundcloud… https://soundcloud.com/stevelouw Twitter @stevelouwmusic Thanks everybody. It is always a humbling experience interviewing someone as good as Steve Louw because he is just as good as any international musician out there. I can not stress how important it is to support our artists like Steve because the music was made by a South African and mostly recorded in South Africa for the South African people which means you and me.
Ernesto Garcia Marques, Hout Bay, Cape Town, South Africa, 9th April 2021