WHILE THE black south African leader Nelson Mandela was still in jail, his seventieth birthday, in June 1988, inspired the starriest gathering of rockers since Live Aid. And on April 16th, another concert honoring the same man in the same venue, London’s Wembley Stadium, gave rise to some of rock & roll’s most notable political partying.
But this time the music of Tracy Chapman, Neil Young, Anita Baker, Peter Gabriel, et al, took a back seat to the real star of the show: Mandela himself. Greeted with a tumultuous six-minute ovation by the 72,000 fans in the stadium, Mandela faced the largest crowd he has addressed outside South Africa since his February release.
From the triumphal shout of the opening act, Aswad — “Nelson Mandela’s back in town!” — through Peter Gabriel’s valedictory rendition of ‘Biko’, it was an unusually well-focused event. And the crowd cheered everything, particularly the spoken reminders that Mandela, though out of prison, is still not free to vote.
Judging the show in purely musical terms, there was less to cheer about, with most performers restricted to brief sets. Solo appearances by Young, Lou Reed, Terence Trent D’Arby and Chapman proved of mixed quality, as did some of the all-star band formations that made up the bulk of the musical menu. Among the standouts was a collaboration by Daniel Lanois and the Neville Brothers, as well as an appearance by George Duke’s big band, featuring Stanley Clarke on bass and vocalists Bonnie Raitt, Natalie Cole, Mica Paris and Anita Baker.
Jackson Browne and Johnny Clegg served up a pleasant blend of California and Zulu harmonies. Simple Minds surprised no one with a reprise of the song ‘Mandela Day’, which they wrote for the last show. Gabriel stuck to quieter fare; he sang a duet with Chapman on ‘Don’t Give Up’ and strained to match the high notes with Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour on ‘In Your Eyes’. And rappers Stetsasonic, Neneh Cherry and the Jungle Brothers worked the audience into the act with chants of “Free South Africa.”
Yet no one came close to upstaging the elderly man who had come, he said, “to say thank you.” The thought that rock might, for once, have made a real difference made it a night to remember.
© Robert Sandall, Rolling Stone, 31 May 1990