January 30, 2014

Notes from the road: Cape Town #3

THIS was a stadium show stuffed into an arena – and a rather small arena at that. You had to feel sorry for Bellville’s Velodrome, a venue originally designed forcyclists to engage in the, uh, thrilling business of going round in circles.

It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Bruce Springsteen rocks – but such was the sledgehammer assault that opened this 30-song marathon, with a super-augmented 17-piece E Street Band in tow, it was a wonder the place was still intact by the time he bought a glorious evening to a close some three hours later with a solo, acoustic version of “Thunder Road”.

Equally wondrous was the fact that 16 of those songs were not played the two previous shows. The cover of The Special AKA’s “Nelson Mandela”, which opened the Sunday and Tuesday concerts, had been replaced with “We Take Care Of Our Own”. It was followed by “Night” and then, the first of several audience requests, “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”. All were making their tour debuts. This was followed by “High Hopes”, the title track off the new album, before three more new songs were aired: “Adam Raised a Cain”, “Something In The Night” and “Wrecking Ball”.

On a personal note, both “Adam…” and “Something...”, off 1978’s Darkness On The Edge Of Town, had a powerful personal resonance. I spent six months in 1979 in Oshakati in northern Namibia as a military conscript and listened to just two albums, day in and day out, in that fly-blown border town: Patti Smith’s Easter and Bruce’s Darkness… – both quintessentially punk albums without being, you know, Punk™. Back then, the latter’s haunted desolation and themes of disillusion neatly dovetailed with own bleak frame of mind. I was deeply gratified that “Badlands” was also performed tonight, as well as the Bruce co-penned “Because The Night”, which had been Patti’s radio hit off Easter.

Because the Night” was a particular highlight. Guitarist Nils Lofgren – owner of the zeffest sideboards this side of Voortrekker Rd (they were like shark fins poking out beneath his Mad Hatter’s headgear) got to take the solo. Until then he’d been playing second or third fiddle to guest E Streeter Tom Morello and Nils didn’t need a second invitation to let rip. It was possibly the happiest he looked all evening, grinning like a fairly small madman.

As for the Rage Against the Machine guitarist, well . . . a buddy joked with me last week about how he’d be hanging around the Velodrome’s stage door, waiting for Bruce to appear – only to ask him, “Hey, can you get me Tom Morello’s autograph, please?” And, dear God, it wouldn’t be such an insulting request either. There have been some grumbles about the technically flash Morello stealing the limelight from Lofgren and E Street stalwart Little Steven (looking very much like a Mutant Ninja Turtle) but then he was the architect of Rage Against The Machine’s dramatic re-imagining of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” for the Occupy generation and he really does add tremendous value to this tour. (On a more sentimental note, someone claiming to be Morello’s brother was in the audience and, over an extended piano intro to “Because The Night”, jumped on stage to publicly propose to his girlfriend. She said yes – and, it must be said, there were several moistened eyes in the house.)

To be honest, though, by “Wrecking Ball”’s close, I was beginning to fear that there would be little in the way of nuance this evening; that it was all going to be one unvarying, monolithic aural assault. Four guitars, a rip-snorting five to six-piece horn section, two keyboards and rock’s most assured rhythm section, drummer Max Weinberg and bass guitarist Garry Talent, blasting away full tilt does kinda give you that impression; as blitzkriegs go, it was like New Jersey’s shock and awe campaign against sleepy old Cape Town.

But here I stand, happily corrected. The Celtic-flavoured “Death To My Hometown” brought a welcome change of pace, before the showman in Bruce emerged with “Hungry Heart”, in which he went crowd-surfing and high-fiving fans in the golden circle. The crowd loved it. Here mention should be made of some of the more intriguing hand-held signs and song requests from fans. “Play ‘Tougher Than The Rest’,” read one, “and I’ll give him a blowjob.” The song was played. It’s not clear who got lucky, though. The band did think it hilarious, though, as they did the sign with the legend, “We’ve Found Your Balls” – a reference to Bruce’s remarks, at the previous evening’s concert, about the effects of swimming in Cape Town’s freezing Atlantic waters: “I haven’t seen my balls for a day-and-a-half.”

The evening’s most interesting – and perhaps weakest – moment came with the choice of Little Steven’s anti-apartheid anthem, “Sun City”. An important song, but one lost on an audience who clearly had no idea what it was. And herein lay perhaps a paradox. It was released in 1985 by Artists United Against Apartheid, a collective that included, among others, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Herbie Hancock, Jackson Browne, U2, Keith Richards, Jimmy Cliff and Gil-Scott Heron, and it championed the UN cultural boycott by focussing on Sol Kerzner’s hotel and casino complex (where Rod Stewart, Elton John, Queen, Linda Rondstadt and others had played, much to the dismay of anti-apartheid activists around the world.

Given, though, that the purpose of the boycott was to enforce apartheid South Africa’s cultural isolation, you could then argue that the song was now a victim of that campaign’s success, not so?

But if it was a weak moment, matters improved somewhat with “Rocky Ground”, off Wrecking Ball, before a blistering, all-out rock-fest finale that included the standards, “Seven Nights to Rock” and “Twist and Shout”, “Born To Run”, “Glory Days”, “Dancing In The Dark” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”. By the time Bruce closed the show, alone, with “Thunder Road”, he’d more than proven rock and roll’s ongoing strengths, resilience and purpose in the 21st century.

Case closed, as far as I’m concerned.

– Andrew Donaldson, journalist and author of Heart of Dickness: Jacob Zuma and The Spear (Tafelberg)