Some acts were made for recording albums and some were made for performing live. File South African musical group Johnny Clegg & Savuka in the latter category.
The seven-member, multiracial combo - which blends rock, reggae, pop and jazz with traditional African rhythms into its musical stew - has never quite caught on with U.S. audiences. Perhaps it's because the band would be hard-pressed to capture the most important element missing in its three recordings to date - the sheer joy that emanates from the performance of each individual song in concert. Saturday night's heart-stopping show was no exception.For example, compare the band's live version of the title track (and first single) from its third and latest LP, "Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World," to its vinyl original. Gone was the synthesizer gloss, replaced by a warmer, more human blend of rock guitar with funk bass and tribal rhythms.
Also, the more equal mix of the message with the rhythm made Clegg's peaceful cries ("You have to live with the crooked politician/Trust those things that you can never see"), written for younger generations, that much more powerful.
Perhaps the most compelling thing about the band's live shows, though, is the authentic tribal stomps performed by the amazingly limber-for-his-36-years Clegg and percussionist Dudu Zulu. After each routine, the audience was swooning in sympathetic agony for the two.
On "Moliva" - a number sung completely in Zulu and dedicated to Clegg's own marriage ceremony, which was performed in Zulu - Clegg and his companion strutted and competed (in traditional African dancing styles) for the mock-affections of supporting singer Mandisa Dlanga, who spurned them both. This band genuinely has fun onstage.
It's unfortunate that this critic doesn't have the vocabulary or writing skills it would take to do one of Savuka's shows justice. It's amazing to see how much effort and energy it takes to put on one of the band's marathon shows, and unfortunate that each Clegg and Savuka release isn't put directly on videotape, since that would be the ultimate statement of the group.
That's not to slight this underrated band, which is filled with amazingly skilled instrumentalists. From Solly Letwaba's funk bass stylings, to Derek DeBeer's rock-steady drumming, to Clegg's pop and tribal guitar flares, to Keith Hutchinson's virtuoso keyboards and jazzy flute and sax playing, there isn't a weak musical link.
However, the clever mix of music with never-too-heavy messages and dancing makes this band much more than just another rock group with a cause, of which there are far too many.
Speaking of causes, though, Clegg uses his slightly nasal vocals for his gentle sermonizing, unlike former Police frontman Sting, to whom Clegg has been compared. Instead of singing annoyingly through his teeth or putting on the pompous airs that Sting uses to deliver his messages, Clegg persuades very quietly and subtly.
While we're on the subject of the Police, this reviewer hadn't realized how much he despises that excruciating trio until hearing opening act Samples.
The Boulder, Col., five-piece tries its best America's version of the aforementioned band, including extremely Sting-like vocals and a similar blend of rock, reggae and jazz.
Fortunately, though, Samples has not yet reached the Police's level of rock pompousness and rock bombastics.
Also, some of the band's quieter moments, especially instrumental breaks on "My Town" and "Surprised to See" were quite effective. Just avoid the Sting-like screeches, guys, for your own sakes - another Sting is not what we need.