By BRUCE DENNILL
Emmarentia Live / Bad Peter, Gangs Of Ballet, Freshlyground, Mango Groove, Mi Casa, Goodluck / Emmarentia Dam, Johannesburg
Festivals are a wonderful thing – collected talent, back to back, channelling inspiration for a bunch of happy-go-lucky revellers. They’re all the better when they last a single day during which there is nothing less than perfect weather, zero mud and, instead of horrible pots of deep-fried mysteries, you can take your pick of one of a dozen boutique food trucks.
People who lost a pair of wellies at Glastonbury or spent three hours in a portaloo at Oppikoppie that one time will tell you you don’t know what you’re missing, but frankly, let them wallow in their delusions. Events like Emmarentia Live are better than those festivals and, other than a seated gig in a high-end theatre with the best sound system money can buy, they’re better than most other live music options.
The all-South African line-up started in the blues-rock arena with Bad Peter, went via the electronica-tinged pop-rock of Gangs Of Ballet and distinctively South African repertoire of Freshlyground and Mango Groove to the dance-friendly tunes of Mi Casa and Goodluck. The crowd numbers built steadily throughout the day, though depending on musical taste and marketing logic, it would have been expected that perhaps the powerful strut of Gangs Of Ballet or the hits-plus-nostalgia double-punch of Mango Groove would pull everyone in.
Those who took it easy early and only arrived for the closing acts missed a number of tricks, though. Gangs of Ballet have added to their cleverly layered rock – for some songs – a brutal bottom end that, without hyperbole, recalls the likes of Led Zeppelin. It’s probably not to everyone’s taste, particularly if they’re expecting the mellower chart hits, but it’s a powerful, thrilling formula that suggests that the likelihood of the band stalling as they strive to innovate is very low indeed.
Freshlyground’s stagecraft has been honed by long years of experience, and Zolani Mahola remains a magnetic frontwoman, dwarfed by her own afro as she pranced around and led not only the rest of the band but a large chunk of the crowd in a joyful jig during the band’s set. An equally large band (though they don’t seem to have quite the lengthy list of personnel they used to) Mango Groove came on to a rapturous reception and maintained that tone throughout a set packed with as many memories as there were melodies. Claire Johnston is still the focal point of the whole enterprise and holds her own while tackling the robust original keys of the act’s many hits. She only backed off one of the high notes, and that was a reach 20 years ago…
There was a particularly special moment when Mi Casa trumpeter Mo-T came on to join Johnston and company for a song, deputising for his late father Kgasoane Banza, who was one of the founding members of Mango Groove. That was countered, for part of the audience near the sound desk, who had to put up with a couple of under-the-weather gentlemen and their scarcely less coherent partners starting a fight during Special Star. What sort of idiot starts a fight during Special Star? Kudos to the on-duty security men, who waded into the melee without a moment’s hesitation and sorted it out efficiently (one security man received a bloody nose, but otherwise the only casualties were someone’s picnic strawberries).
Bringing the dance acts on as the “refreshment” tally mounted turned out to be a smart move, as the last couple of hours became more of a party than sit-and-soak-it-up affair. And then it was over, before the residents across the road from the park could kick up a fuss about the volume and while it was still light enough to exit the well-planned parking areas without running down the slower stragglers. A great day, and a great model that serves both audience and bands well.