Gig Review: Deacon Blue – Live at Marks Park, Emmarentia, Johannesburg – 24 February 2024

Reviewed by Matthew Nijland

As the sun relentlessly beat down last Saturday afternoon, Joburg’s biggest Deacon Blue fans gathered under their beach umbrellas at Marks Park in the 31 degrees heat for a top-notch musical extravaganza, brought to us by Breakout Events and HOT 102.7 FM.

But before the main attraction graced us, we were treated to an exceptional lineup of SA’s musical talent…

 

13:45 – Absinthè

Kicking off the afternoon with their bright dual-acoustic strumming and mellow violin drones, was the supergroup, Absinthè. Declared on-stage as “SA’s greatest cover band since Mean Mr. Mustard” by co-lead singer Cito (of Wonderboom fame), he and his compadres Paul E. Flynn (of Sugardrive fame) and violinist Waldo Luc Alexander graced us with unplugged renditions of alternative rock classics by Oasis, Joy Division, Coldplay and Placebo. I particularly enjoyed their stripped-down spin on “I Wanna Be Adored” by The Stone Roses and “Monkey Gone to Heaven” by the Pixies.

Their relaxed musical airiness was as welcomed as the occasional cool breeze blowing through the grounds as we settled into the day and sipped on our drinks. Some folks were brave enough to rock it shirtless in the punishing mid-afternoon heat, but I shudder to think of the consequences of their actions… and how much sunburn treatment lotion they must’ve applied later!

 

15:00 – Ross Learmonth

Following a pumped up intro by DJ Rob Vega, Ross Learmonth sprinted onto the stage for one of his first post-Prime Circle solo performances. Ross was in top form, smiling widely and soaking up the admiration of his longtime Joburg fans who flocked to the front of the stage to sing and dance. Treating us to an assortment of his latest solo work from his 2023 album “Carousel”, including “Wild”, “Young”, “Believer”, “Screaming” and “Rose-tinted”, along with Prime Circle hits like “Innocence”, “Doors”, “Hello”, “Pretty Like the Sun” and, of course, “She Always Gets What She Wants”. All the while, proudly flaunting his Scottish heritage in honour of the Scottish legends he was opening for that day, and dedicating “Young” to his Scots-born father who inspired the song’s message of “living life to the fullest because we all die young”.

As a charismatic singer and band frontman for the past 23 years, Ross displayed full comfort in his own skin, even picking up the bass to flesh out his current trio setup. He’s fully and invigoratingly embraced his solo career, making him a force to be reckoned with in his newfound freedom. Something that also stuck with me is how he hung around for a good 10 minutes in front of the stage, happily signing autographs and snapping photos with them. I admire any artist who doesn’t take their success for granted.

 

16:30 – Watershed

As the day finally cooled down into the early evening, I took a walk around the festival grounds as Craig Hinds’ unmistakable voice serenaded us with Watershed’s first song, “O.K.”. I felt that Breakout Events and HOT 102.7 did a great job at making the festival very accessible and free-flowing for attendees, with an extra large bar and impressive variety of food vendors ranging from Dutch mini pancakes to Greek shawarmas. While milling around, I got to catch up with some good musical friends of mine also attending: Gad de Combes (from Shortstraw) who was selling his popular Gaddles Gadrock candy there, Dylan “Yak” Anceriz (from Indie Dog), Matthew Brown, and Steve and Jolene East (from The Honeymooners Band).

Watershed held the ever-growing audience in the palms of their hands, entertaining with smash hits including “Letters”, “Watch the Rain”, “Undone”, and their signature tune “Indigo Girl” – a massive crowd pleaser with an exciting, bouncy buildup in the middle and explosive ending. Craig and the boys delivered like true professionals as the main opening act of the day, flexing their prowess as one of SA music’s greatest.

 

18:00 – Deacon Blue

Having rocked Cape Town’s Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens just two nights before, Joburg was finally ready for the same treatment as Deacon Blue swept the stage for the final date of their 16-month-long world tour with their characteristically Scottish swagger. And boy, did they deliver it in spades! Kicking off their set with “City of Love”, the crowd immediately went crazy for them, and we knew it was going to be a special night ahead.

It was impossible not to be enamoured with Ricky Ross’ effortlessly cool stage presence and distinctive vocal style, or mesmerised by his wife and co-singer Lorraine McIntosh twirling around with her tambourine while adding a gorgeous layer of harmony to the songs. The band – consisting of Dougie Vipond (drums), Jim Prime (keyboards), Gregor Philp (guitar) and Lewis Gordon (bass) – formed a tight musical unit, delivering their songs with a full, crisp, impassioned sound.

The band kept their impressive stream of hits coming – “Chocolate Girl”, “When Will You (Make My Telephone Ring)”, “Love and Regret”, “Loaded”, “Real Gone Kid”, “Your Town”, “Twist & Shout” – and the crowd sang louder and louder with each one we got. They also added in other awesome tunes spanning their discography range including “Bethlehem Begins”, “Raintown”, “The Hipsters” and “That’s What We Can Do”.

If I could summarise Deacon Blue’s music in one word, it would be “feeling”. During an extended breakdown in “Loaded”, Ricky shared an anecdote of how they’d been performing this song since their career’s inception, and how the crowds would sing the lyrics back to them as they grew in popularity from a bar band to world-travelling musicians. He thus encouraged us to truly “feel” the lyrics calling out the world’s injustice and inequality – including that which we face in South Africa – as we stood out there together in the field, pouring out our emotions as we sang with the band. It was a powerful moment to witness indeed.

I loved Ricky’s uniquely Scottish sense of humour when introducing his bandmates, such as describing how he once slammed his front door in drummer Dougie’s face upon meeting him because “he was too handsome” before he stuck his nose through the letterbox saying “I can play the drums too”. Following the ramped-up “Queen of the New Year”, the band teasingly walked off-stage before commencing their encore. It always feels great to hear an international artist mention that they’ve wanted to come play in South Africa, and it was cool to hear Ricky share another story of how some SA fans had travelled to London in 1994 to watch the band before their initial breakup, and spoke to them backstage about SA recently becoming a democracy at the time and our then-new colourful flag. He admitted he was disappointed that the band wouldn’t have been able to play SA at the time, but was very happy to finally be here and appreciated us waiting for them.

He wished our young democratic nation godspeed with building a better future for ourselves before dedicating “Peace Will Come” to us, and then immediately launching into the classic singalong single that started it all for them, “Dignity”. After one last dance with “Fergus Sings the Blues”, Deacon Blue bid us one final goodbye with a stunning acoustic cover of “Keep Me In Your Heart” by Warren Zevon, which saw each member have a moment to sing. And just like that, the lads and lass had given us a feel-good show we’ll never forget and talk about fondly forever. One of the coolest, most underrated bands I’ve seen to date!

Thank you so much to Breakout Events for inviting us and for hosting yet another fantastic event!

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