Ladysmith Black Mambazo & Johnny Clegg Band – August 9th – Denver Botanic Gardens

Photos by Tim Dwenger

The Scene: As we pulled up around the corner from the Botanic Gardens at about 5:30, the line to get in stretched down York, around the corner, and at least two blocks to the West down 9th.  It looked like one of the longest lines of the season as people sat chatting, sipping wine and beer, and munching on cheese and crackers…all about par for the course for a concert night at York St.  Once inside, we heard from a friend who had arrived a few minutes after six and had to stand in line for nearly 20 minutes as the snaking mass of people moved slowly East, around the corner and finally into the peaceful confines of The Gardens themselves.  When he arrived, we talked about a fantastic picnic dinner that was waiting in the cooler, and were surprised by the fact that the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo were coming down the hill toward the stage already.  It was only 6:45 so we guessed were in for a few extra minutes of music.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo: As the legendary South African a cappella group took the stage, a hush fell over the crowd as we were soon rewarded with lush complex harmonies sung in a language that wasn’t familiar to most of us.  It is relatively common knowledge that Ladysmith Black Mambazo rose to fame in the U.S. when they were featured on Paul Simon’s seminal Graceland album back in 1986, but what might not be as commonly known is that though the group didn’t release their first record until 1973, they have been around since 1960.

The group’s founder and frontman, Joseph Shabalala, is proudly carrying on the tradition that he began more than 50 years ago and since 1993 he has had the privilege of working with four of his sons whom he recruited to join the group.  The resulting 9 piece ensemble sounds every bit as good as the incarnation that performed with Simon in the 80’s, but there was a lightness to the group that I wasn’t expecting and as I watched I developed a loose theory.  The elder Shabalala did not perform every song with the rest of the group, retreating from time to time to let the younger generation take over, and it seemed to me that the group got sillier when “Dad” was in the wings.  Comical stunts such as one of the members walking up to a mic stand with no mic and singing into it for a full verse, elicited laughter from the audience as well at the other singers in the group.

It wasn’t all fun and games however as Ladysmith taught us a little bit about South African traditions and Zulu dancing, even going to the extent of performing numerous high kicks that might have qualified them for a gymnastics routine at the Olympic Games that were going on at the time.  While they introduced most of the songs in English, they only performed a few in our native tongue and the first came nearly halfway through the performance when they broke into a beautiful rendition of “Rain Rain Beautiful Rain.”  They then offered up the one song that most of the audience knew with “Homeless,” a song that they had written with Simon during the Graceland project.  Much to the chagrin of my sister, I used to try to sing along with Ladysmith’s part on this song as I drove my gigantic Chevy wagon to high school and it was fantastic to hear the stripped down version of the song live and in person.  Maybe I have matured a bit over the years as I kept my singing to myself last week.

As twilight crept in around us, the set drew to a close and the 9 members of the group each did their own unique dance off the stage only to be beckoned back by a standing ovation from the crowd.  They wrapped things up with “Shosholoza,” an African Folk song that is sometimes referred to as “South Africa’s Second National Anthem,” and then made their way up the hill.  As the crew set up the stage for Johnny Clegg Band, I could only hope they would return to collaborate with their countryman.

Johnny Clegg Band: Before he took the stage last week, I wasn’t familiar with Johnny Clegg Band at all and while several of the people I talked to were in the same boat, I did have the privilege of speaking with a South African man who had seen Clegg many times over the years and he promised me a good show.  Now, I’m a fan of a lot of different genres and styles of music and while Clegg’s isn’t exactly the most cutting edge sound, he performs it with such confidence and skill that is hard not to get sucked into what he is doing up on stage.

As he made his way through his 75 minute set, Clegg interjected humorous and educational anecdotes about life in South Africa and on the road over his forty plus year career.  Early in the show he introduced the song “Bullets” with an extended story about a death threat that he faced while on tour and later he spoke about origins of the use of the Concertina (an accordion like instrument) in Zulu music and shared that the Christian’s in South Africa used to refer to the instrument as “The Devil’s Ribcage.”

As he played the Concertina, and the band layed down a thick groove, my mind took me back to those drives to high school listening to the Graceland album and while I’m not sure if Clegg and Paul Simon have ever worked together, their affinity for blending the musical styles suggests they would have an enormous amount to discuss about songs like “Cruel Crazy Beautiful World,” and “Great Heart.”  Lest you come away from this thinking that Clegg is simply rehashing Graceland (which he clearly is not) his sound also conjured up thoughts of bands like Men At Work, and even the great Irish Pop band The Saw Doctors.  Clegg is an undeniably talented artist and the pit in front of the stage was filled with dancers for the duration of his set.  When he introduced his band and waved goodbye as curfew loomed, the audience rewarded them with a massive ovation that prompted him to return to the stage for a quick encore.

The final song of the evening, “Dela,” featured the repeating theme of dogs howling at the moon and the audience got in on the action as Clegg stood on stage and soaked up our unified voices singing back at him.  The enthusiasm that was radiating out of the crowd made me wonder for a moment or two if I, and some of the folks around me, had been the only ones in the crowd who weren’t familiar with Clegg before he took the stage.  Either way, one thing was clear as we packed up and headed off into the night, Johnny Clegg had won over some new fans during his show at The Botanic Gardens last week, and while I was one of them, I surely wasn’t the only one.

Energy: A
Sound: A-
Musicianship: A-
Stage Presence: A
Set / Light show: B-

Overall: A-


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Who Is Timothy Dwenger

Music has always been a part of my life. It probably all started listening to old Grateful Dead, Peter Paul & Mary, and Simon & Garfunkel records that my parents had, but it wasn't long before they were taking me to concerts like Starship, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Huey Lewis & The News. I got the bug to write about music after reviewing an Eric Clapton concert for a creative writing project in high school but didn't really take it up seriously until 2002. Since then I have published countless articles in The Marquee Magazine and done some work for Jambase.com, SPIN Magazine, and various other outlets. I started Listen Up Denver! as a way to share the music information that is constantly spilling out of my head with people who care. Please enjoy!