Graceland Live would do well to follow in the footsteps of The Simon & Garfunkel Story (different show, same production company) and get into a West End theatre for a few dates. The original live event, Graceland: The African Concert, was held in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1987, and featured several South African musicians, most notably Miriam Makeba (1932-2008), Hugh Masekela (1939-2018) and the famed male choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The event was politically slanted, as many of the guest musicians Paul Simon had invited to perform alongside him were barred from South Africa, at the time still very much in the throes of apartheid.
This show, then, does not seek to recreate that concert (peppered as it was with expressions of desire for a ‘free South Africa’, and the inclusion of a song which seemed to be almost entirely about demanding the release of Nelson Mandela). The playlist in the second half instead follows the studio album ‘Graceland’ released in 1986, parts of which were recorded in Johannesburg, arguably breaking the ‘cultural boycott’ informally placed on South Africa by anti-apartheid movements, in which people in the entertainment industry (film, television, music, theatre, radio, you name it) were essentially asked to have nothing to do with South Africa in terms of either performing there in any capacity or permitting productions of their work to take place there.
If you pop ‘Josh Turner’ into a search engine, you’ll probably come across a country and gospel singer. I am sure he is a fine performer, but he isn’t the guy fronting Graceland Live – you’ll need to look up ‘Joshua Lee Turner’, or on YouTube, ‘Josh Turner Guitar’ (or even, as one website put it, ‘the other Josh Turner’). His focus is very much on the music: banter doesn’t really come into it, but equally it doesn’t really need to, as Turner lets the music speak for itself. Some in the audience may have wanted a little more interaction, but I found the balance to be quite perfect – I’ve never been a fan of the kind of performer who feels the need to check whether the audience is still okay and having a good time after every other song.
Members of the South African Cultural Gospel Choir UK presented a collection of songs in the first half, of varying styles and tempos, making references to (amongst many other things) the kind of train that hurtles through countryside and cows apparently in distress. In traditional costume, they performed some enthusiastic dancing – the old-school, foot-stomping style of celebratory atmosphere created by pulsating rhythms and drumbeating. It was this kind of music that led Paul Simon to embark on his ‘Graceland’ album in the first place, and it was an interesting experience.
Contributions from Turner in the first half were derived from other areas of the Paul Simon canon, such that the entire first half was essentially a preamble to ‘Graceland’ being performed live. Turner is just as engaging and delightful on his own with one of his three on-stage guitars as he is with band and choir accompanying him at full tilt. And what began as relatively reserved Monday night audience became gradually infused and inspired by the music on stage. By the time the running order had got to ‘You Can Call Me Al’, people were on their feet, even ‘dancing’ (inverted commas mine) in the aisles, bemusing both yours truly and the venue’s bouncers.
Purists will, as ever, find reasons to be unimpressed – consider, for instance, the lack of an accordion in ‘The Boy in the Bubble’. Entirely negligible matters of that nature aside, this was an enjoyable and electrifying night out. And I wasn’t alone in thinking so – on the way out, someone in the row behind asked their companion what she thought. She reflected for a moment, then beamed, “I just don’t want to leave.”
Review by Chris Omaweng
Thirty years after the release of this ground breaking album, featuring such unforgettable songs as You Can Call Me Al, Under African Skies and Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, this incredible concert will recreate Graceland in full with painstaking attention to detail.
With New York-based musician and YouTube sensation Josh Turrner (whose own video of Graceland has been viewed 1.2 million times) as Paul Simon, the South African Cultural Choir UK recreating the fabulous Ladysmith Black Mambazo harmonies to perfection, and a live band.
London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire
Monday 14 October at 7.30pm