‘A man walks down the street. He says “Why am I soft in the middle now”.’
Once this famous line of Paul Simon’s ‘You Can Call Me Al’ had been reached, the crowd had truly lost themselves to the fantastic performances of the London African Gospel Choir’s ‘Graceland’ experience.
Given that this Cambridge audience had booked tickets for a gospel choir performance, many would have been surprised to find that the venue of choice was the Junction. After the concert, an older friend of mine had said he would’ve preferred a seat, only because he had been dancing for the entire 2.5 hour set. This was testament to the power of London African Gospel Choir, ensuring that your archetypal tame, polite British audience would leave their inhibitions at the door and lose themselves.
Made up of London-based performers originally from Africa, LAGC are a musically eclectic group, equally at home in both the recording studio and community music festival. In this latest incarnation, 11 singers and a backing band were touring a complete performance of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ album across the country. A seminal album of the 1980s, the singer-songwriter based the entire record on the music-making of South Africa, performing with revered musicians of the region such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo Choir (who, incidentally, performed at last year’s Cambridge Folk Festival). This was an album that wore its musical influences on its sleeve. It made perfect sense for LAGC to take up the mantle and soak these songs with even more musical authenticity.
We were left waiting to hear the album in full, however, after a first half of traditional songs from across Africa, in new arrangements specifically written for this line-up of choir and band. The 11 singers were assembled in one long line and would each take turns as the lead vocalist, culminating in a gorgeous, unexpectedly mournful third number, a slow-burner in which one of an emotionally-charged performer gradually engaged the entire choir and band over 5 minutes, silencing the room in awe. This was to be one of very few ‘slower’ numbers, as even after 15 minutes the audience were involved in the ‘call and response’ chants that were the focus of much of the first half.
The anticipation was rife for ‘Graceland’, which met with an immediate release as the opening section of “The Boy in the Bubble” started (Sorry purists; all accordions had been replaced by keyboards!) For the older members of the audience, seeing any performance of this album had been 30 years in the making, so they were going to get their fill, one way or another.
The album wasn’t performed in its track listed order, leading sharply onto one of the set’s highlights, “I Know, I Know”. A classic example of Paul Simon’s autobiographical word-smithing contrasting against traditional African forms, LAGC gave the song even more verve, particularly during those now-famous shout-outs during the song’s chorus. It is precisely when the line is blurred between South African music-making and American singer-songwriter that the set comes into its own, making for a more impressive live experience.
The band exemplified themselves throughout the night, and it was great to see each member come into their own on specific numbers. The two guitarists, as static as shoegazers throughout the night, nevertheless contributed some fantastic interlocking guitar parts, particularly on “Crazy Love, Part II”. The drummer? Top stuff.
We were not disappointed with hearing “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” and “You Can Call Me Al” as encores, which in turn led into an extended instrumental ending where the choir’s men took turns to give us their best ‘gumboot’ dancing. A final traditional number taught the crowd how to ‘stomp’ away their troubles before leaving the Junction, heading out into the night as if “Under African Skies”.
Words by James Proctor