By BRUCE DENNILL
Leo Sayer Live In Concert / Teatro at Montecasino, Fourways, Johannesburg
English (now resident in Australia) singer-songwriter Leo Sayer has had a long association with South Africa, having been visiting the country since his Seventies heyday. It’s been a full generation since he was last in town, but the enthusiasm of the audience on the first night of a three-show run at the Teatro spoke to the longevity of his talent and the enduring quality of his songs.
Beginning, on a simple stage with several spotlights converging on his microphone, with The Show Must Go On – that sequencing a suitable insight into the singer’s sense of humour – Sayer proved that, even at 68, his trademark vocals have lost none of their power, stepping out onto stage and launching full tilt into the first verse without preamble. That level of commitment remained during all 22 songs in the set, despite the keys in which the songs are pitched, all of which could be considered risky for most singers.
Much of Sayer’s confidence would have come from the rock solid backing of his band, which is worth mentioning given that the outfit – all South Africans bar Sayer’s long-time touring guitarist was only put together recently Paul Berton – was only put together recently. Experienced sessioneers all, Gavin Langeveldt (guitar), David Klassen (drums), Chanelle Davids (backing vocals), Denny Lalouette (bass) and Jaconell Mouton (keys) showed a level of unflappable expertise that South African audiences take for granted – but shouldn’t – with two particular mentions reserved for a finger-blurringly quick piano solo by Mouton in Long Tall Glasses, towards the end of the show, and Klassen’s elegantly metronomic precision throughout.
Sayer himself showed off his own world-class musicality. He’s known mostly for his voice, his songwriting chops and, yes, his halo of curls, but the Johannesburg crowd were also reminded of his superb harmonica playing – he’s technically excellent, but also plays with loads of soul – and there were plenty of moments when it was clear he and the band were playing off each other, improvising watchfully. Coming out of these interludes, Sayer made it clear that his pitch is perfect or close to it – real talent sometimes obscured by the personality taken on, beyond the singer, by his biggest hits.
Those were all there – The Show Must Go On, One Man Band, Moonlighting and Orchard Road in a package up front, and Dreamin’ (a more aggressive version than the Cliff Richard option), Thunder In My Heart, You Make Me Feel Like Dancing (sans the early falsetto) and When I Need You all in a row in the middle of the second half. Sayer also included two tunes, Beautiful Year and the title track, from his most recent collection, Restless Years. These songs stand up to anything he’s written before, but it’s interesting, and a little sad, to consider that they won’t be experienced in the same way by a wider audience due to the changes in distribution and the rest of the industry models.
Wall to wall energy, charming banter and the ability to deliver at the level he’s been achieving for decades: Leo Sayer showed in Johannesburg that he still has much to give. Perhaps a shorter wait for a South African return, sir?