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A Love Feast for Nelson Mandela in London

April 18, 1990|JEFF KAYE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — In the chilly night air at Wembley Stadium, tens of thousands of pop music fans gave their loudest and longest ovation to a man who's never had a song on the charts.

In fact they sang to him, belting out the Broadway show tune turned British soccer standard "You'll Never Walk Alone" for anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela.

The exuberant but extremely well-behaved crowd of more than 70,000 had no problem adjusting to the nearly seamless blend of politics and music at the five-hour Mandela tribute concert Monday night.

The same fans who went crazy over Simple Minds and formed a 150-person conga line during Natalie Cole's "Wild Women Do" paid rapt attention to all the political speeches, especially Mandela's. During his low-key, half-hour appearance, the African National Congress leader gave his thanks for the international efforts which helped win his release after nearly three decades of imprisonment and pleaded for continued sanctions against the South African government.

The crowd cheered, hissed and kept quiet at all the right times.

With this concert, it appeared that the use of grandiose rock shows for consciousness-raising purposes had evolved another notch. This was no fund-raising charity event. Though the artists were performing for free, other productions costs were high, according to the organizers, and they expect to see little, if any profit. Instead it was designed to provide a worldwide forum for a political cult hero to deliver his message. This new dimension in pop music events brought occasional moments of culture clash. Hundreds of fans held up matches and lighters in the darkened stadium just before Mandela came on stage, as if they were coaxing him out to play "Born to Run."

Tracy Chapman solved the problem of finding an act to follow Mandela, coming on stage alone to play her haunting "Talkin' Bout a Revolution."

But the song was turned into an instant commercial. As Chapman sang, the giant monitors flanking the stage replayed a slow motion version of Mandela's earlier arrival on stage, with the ANC leader waving to the adoring crowd. With Chapman singing the line, "Finally the tables are starting to turn," it produced a powerful image reminiscent of a 30-second presidential campaign spot.

But while the music was there because of the politics, the fans were there because of the music. And they did not appear to be disappointed.

Early in the show, Patti LaBelle performed with backing from Daniel Lanois' band. Chapman, who seemed more confident than at previous "event" concerts, made the first of several appearances singing "Freedom Now" and "Born to Fight." The Neville Brothers kept the audience moving with "My Blood" and "Yellow Moon."

As the Nevilles played, performers in a green carpeted room backstage clustered around TV sets and watched the BBC's broadcast of the show. Lou Reed and Jackson Browne stood outside their trailers watching with a group of South African musicians, while Anita Baker, Bonnie Raitt and others clustered around the television at the other end of the room.

There was widespread disappointment and resentment among the performers that the show was not being broadcast in the United States.

"It's a scandal," said Little Steven Van Zandt, who spearheaded the all-star anti-apartheid single "Sun City" in 1985. Suggesting that the show was not broadcast in the United States because of its political content, he said, "It's becoming more and more obvious that the media is becoming an organ of the government in the United States. I think it's shameful and embarrassing."

Following appearances by Neil Young, Terence Trent D'Arby and Reed, the appreciative, almost entirely white audience bounced to the two sets of South African music. Conspicuously absent from the show was Hugh Masekela, who was scheduled to appear then dropped out after complaining in the British press that the event was being used as a forum for white artists to boost their record sales.

New York rappers the Jungle Brothers quickly took control of the crowd, prompting an incredible roar when they asked the audience to make as much noise as possible for Mandela. But the drum sound was inexplicably turned down when Neneh Cherry joined the group, and despite her best efforts, there was no regaining the crowd momentum.

The rap segment led to the first of a series of introductions that resulted in Mandela's reaching the stage to prolonged cheering.

After Chapman's "Revolution," Simple Minds sent the crowd into a frenzy that made it clear how much bigger the band is in Great Britain than in the U.S. Lead singer Jim Kerr introduced Van Zandt, who in turn brought out all the other stars plus Chrissie Hynde and Peter Gabriel for a rousing version of "Sun City."

Gabriel ended the show strongly, performing "In Your Eyes" with Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour, and the moving ballad "Biko."

As the crowd filed out, few seemed disappointed, although many noted there was never that magic musical moment they had hoped for.

"It wasn't really the top bands, was it?" asked Colin Francis of London. "But the main thing for me was to catch a glimpse of Nelson Mandela in real life."

"Something to tell the children about," added his friend, Neil Chatum.

"I came for the music and the cause," said a man who didn't want to give his name. "It was good. But they could have given Simple Minds a larger slot."

"I was disappointed," said Philip Harrison, who traveled from York for the show. "I came mainly in hopes U2 were here."

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