“Sometimes there’s a song in my brain
And I feel that my heart knows the refrain
I guess it’s just the music that brings on nostalgia
For an age yet to come.” – Pete Shelley (1978)
(Words and pictures by Len Lumbers)
August 21, 2014 – New York City, NY: Best Buy Theatre
August 22, 2014 – Glenside, PA: Keswick Theatre
August 23, 2014 – Long Island, NY: Pennysaver Amphitheatre
It was dead of winter when I learned Tom Bailey was defrosting his long-neglected Thompson Twins catalog for an American summer package tour, which, even accounting for a Brian Wilson-Beach Boys detente and a new Bowie record in the preceding 18 months, might rank as the biggest shock I’ve experienced in music.
Curb whatever you’re thinking about package tours. To wit: logistical headaches indeed exist, but in this case, the execution in front of the velvet rope – which is all most of us see anyway – has been nearly seamless, the product immensely enjoyable. Everything I’m sharing’s refracted through the prism of bands playing shorter sets than they’d present as single- or double-bill acts.
From the five acts on this 2014 Retro Futura bill – Bailey as de facto Thompson Twins, Howard Jones, Midge Ure as de facto Ultravox, China Crisis, and Katrina Leskanich sans The Waves, there’re precisely six people touring from the original lineups. So the Retro Futura business model won’t remind anyone of Aamer Haleem doggedly chugging through buildings and streets to spook retired pop stars into appearing on VH-1 Bands Reunited. Then again, VH-1 was peddling a T.V. gimmick. One could easily argue Retro Futura’s performing a valuable service.
Pitchfork and its hipster ilk haven’t spilled ink on any of the Retro Futura acts, so the 1980’s new wave canon, as represented by these five, is one of unexplored joys for millennials approaching the music from a diet of Cut Copy, Wild Beasts, La Roux, Lights or Future Islands. And for those of us who were around during MTV’s UK-friendly salad days, the John Hughes movie in our heads has sprung back to life. And for those who thought Thompson Twins walked on water, scratch that big itch: Tom Bailey is alive and well and wearing his Kate Bush headset microphone. He’s singing Twins songs for the first time in 27 years, which gives him something to talk with Vashti Bunyan about should they ever take afternoon tea.
I’m nostalgic. I’m old enough to properly enjoy a good reverie and sharp enough to know reasons why. I recall the colour of the sky the first time I dug into a Thompson Twins album. It was a cornflower blue, just like the Into The Gap artwork. And I remember the sky when I got Jones’ Human’s Lib as a birthday gift: grey and pensive, which mightn’t’ve fit the thrilling suite on side one but fit side two’s “Don’t Always Look At The Rain” to a T. Bailey and HoJo are the top draws on this three-week jaunt, but Jones manfully ceded the anchor leg to his compadre, which, if all goes to plan, ought to impart a genuine air of celebration to each tour stop. For a time – 1984 (which really is the root year of this whole endeavour) – their acts represented the best of the second surge of new wave music: popular records which appealed to discerning collegiates and young urban professionals; artistically superior songs that 10-year-olds could buy from bestseller racks in mall stores. HoJo sang about self-actualization and positive reinforcement; Thompson Twins were a multi-racial boy-girl-boy trio who built pancultural music elements into their songs. Both acts featured singers comfortable in the high tenor range, which made for tremendously vivid choruses, and each could really write a hook. If one’s looking for a quick nostalgia fix from that root year 1984, these’re the guys you want.
So. Wild horses and all that.
I caught the first three shows (heart of Manhattan, sub-Philly and waaay out on Long Island) before coming home to type, and here’s what registered.
The troupe survived an eleventh-hour mass migraine, restocking the house band with a scattershot collection of pros after the first team – a self-contained synth-plus-guitar band – fell through. (And you think the life of a promoter is all caviar dreams?) The new unit – Jimi K. Bones (guitar), Doug Wright (bass), Kevin Tooley (drums) and Ado Coker (keys) – had all of two rehearsals to warm to the Ure, CC and Katrina setlists, each requiring different feels and an understanding of personality tics. (And you think the life of a pro musician is all caviar dreams?)
Personality tics abound at this show. Katrina, distinct due to her gender, nationality and dearth of burbling synths, is also the sassiest performer, and it’s a canny play. The audience knows – and waits on – “Walking On Sunshine,” but the undercard’s a tough draw even for a seasoned performer, and she must pave the road with good material beforehand.
Kat’s Waves had written and released the absolutely wonderful “Going Down To Liverpool” nearly two years before The Bangles lobbed it into the mainstream with that Leonard Nimoy video; here, Katrina and co. reclaim the song with a terrific reading, all “Ticket To Ride”-like drums and delicious guitar crunch. Debbi Peterson’s vocal on the Bangles single is winsome, but Leskanich outpoints her on pure power and tone. There’s a concession made to populism beginning with the Pennsylvania Kewsick Theatre show, where she incorporates the Bangles version’s falsetto tails in the verse, while Ado Coker adds the vaporous backing vocals to the chorus, but I’m fine with the decision. It might even be the best song I hear in the first three hours every night. Might be. There’s a lot of other good stuff to come.
Otherwise, Leskanich shares a few vintage Waves songs (in the shows I’ve seen, the propulsive “Do You Want Crying?” only aired at Manhattan’s Best Buy Theatre) and rotating highlights from her new album, which she’s selling at the merch stand, and which she’ll autograph if you approach to tell her how great her voice sounds after years away from the touring grind. I’ve added that last clause myself because it’s true. And yes, “Walking On Sunshine” doesn’t disappoint. It’s the closest we get to a souped-up Motown stomp all night, a powerful dose of Americana in a night rife with Britishness. She’s quickly developed a good rapport with house guitarist Bones, too.
China Crisis is not quite a 180-degree turn from Katrina, but we’ve clearly crossed an ocean. They wove F-bombs into two singles off what I consider the prettiest synthpop LP of the ‘80s, Working With Fire And Steel. That’s cheek. Singer Gary Daly works the room under that adage about dancing like nobody’s watching, which so far has included wearing a kaftan at most of the shows, occasionally flashing a bit of ankle. He wore a suit at the Pennysaver show and suddenly he could’ve been Ferry, Sylvian, Bowie. Spend a few minutes with him after a show or during his merch table appearances and you’ll learn the cheekiness extends well beyond his early song lyrics.
CC don’t play anything off Fire And Steel here. It’s not by accident (yeah, I asked), and even wishful thinking won’t give Eddie Lundon his turn at the mic for their biggest UK hit, but the set doesn’t want for quality: an expansive “Arizona Sky,” a coolly insinuating “African And White,” and a hatful of highlights from 1985’s Flaunt The Imperfection. The four-song set-within-a-set clearly strikes a chord with the Crisis faithful at these shows, particularly at the Pennysaver, where there was a lot of front-row pogoing.
Lundon is CC’s field general, and in these early shows his stage directions are the clearest indicator of the last-minute challenges brought upon the tour. It’s subtle: a gentle nod, a move into everyone’s line-of-sight behind Daly, a few off-mic whispers to guitarist Bones. (For these shows, Tracy Schnurr has been on drums for CC.) This band plays CC’s delicately flowing music with a curious mix of learning-curve focus and typical live-show rawness. When it works it’s exceedingly fine (“African And White” comes off great), when it’s a work-in-progress you simply have to concede the pressures of backstage machinations (“King In A Catholic Style” got better each night; it needed to, and hopefully it stays there). On this bill, CC’s the least-known entity to American ears, even to this relatively knowledgeable set of American ears, but they ought to win a few converts.
Midge Ure will definitely win a few converts.
Manhattan’s wise to him, but the Keswick and Pennysaver crowds reacted like they’d just discovered a great new ice cream flavour/religion/beer. Commitments were signed in blood during post-chorus respites. Smartphones lit up as people Soundhounded and Googled. Peals of delight rattled from the pews at every widescreen refrain. Ure’s six-song set somehow feels like a complete career overview, despite leaving another dozen terrific songs on the cutting-room floor. It’s like the modern resume, everything wrapped up in a single page, brimming with scannable keywords.
Such as: hymn, God, fade, Vienna, tears.
Drawing from three of his most significant ‘80s playbooks – the nearly always great Ultravox, his solo work, his stewardship of Steve Strange’s Visage – Ure’s set is the most intense, the hardest rocking, the fastest moving. It’s high drama from the moment Gary Daly tags him in: a swath of muso feedback, a suspenseful overture, a count-in, a lurch into “Hymn (The Power And The Glory)”’s muscled synth-rock. The audience is always delighted at the adrenaline rush, happening not two minutes after China Crisis’ amiable departure, and although Ure doesn’t maintain the intensity level all set – can’t, really, he is not The Ramones, maaan – he’s set a template that works time and again. House bassist Doug Wright’s clearly in heaven with this music.
“Fade To Grey” is a known commodity, but it catches crowds off-guard because not everyone reads label credits. Despite dialling down the synth, it’s a fine reading of a seminal tune. “If I Was” retains its arch grandeur, but for sheer pomp there’s no matching the epic “Vienna.” It’s the easiest photo opportunity any of you would-be photogs’ll get all night, the moments wherein Ure steels himself for that soaring, wall-rattling crescendo. “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” is here, too. It’s torridly romantic in the way “Both Ends Burning” was torridly romantic. Love under fire. Enjoy that one, as his high tenor, hardly touched by decades of work, ruffles the hair cells in your Corti. Midge, you wrote some monster choruses, man.
Predictably, Howard Jones presents the fewest surprises in these shows, and I’m not saying this to be oxymoronic. Everyone knows HoJo’s been optimized for peak efficiency since forever, so the variables come down to set design and song choice. Like everyone else on this tour, HoJo remains in fine fettle, so the choruses retain their uplifting vim in identical or close-neighbouring keys to the records of yore.
Because his 45s were groomed for maximum hummability, concert HoJo sounds awfully beefy in person. For various reasons, there’s not a lot of crowd singing in the earlier band sets, but the audience is right there with Howard soon as he hits the bridge. It’s not surprising on early staples, but to hear the crowd double his decibels on a later single like “Everlasting Love” is a sharp reminder of how little modern chart pop is singable. That “…friend and a lover divine/wait for it, wait for it, give it some time” refrain might look stiff on paper, but it’s excitably elastic in surround sound. And it’s not even his best tune. That honour probably rests somewhere within the closing quarter-hour salvo that is “Things Can Only Get Better,” “What Is Love?” and “New Song.” Good things come in threes, though, so I hope he’s not making a habit of dropping “What Is Love?,” a fate which befell the Keswick show.
Like any good technocrat, he’s put his back into modernizing the sound on these songs. For the most part, the transition’s been smooth, although the techno “Things” reprise is too much of a meh thing. It only leaves enough room for one ballad, and no one’s surprised that “No One Is To Blame” gets the nod over “Hide And Seek.” Presented in its hit arrangement but mercifully shorn of Phil Collins, the tune’s aching grace breathes anew.
Turns out Howard’s quite the prattler onstage, too. We get a fair bit of pre-song testifyin’. We also get – and this is important, so please take note – the auteur in a blindingly bright orange suit and matching keytar. Electronic kit’s played by Jonathan Atkinson; Robbie Bronnimann’s synth second-in-command. Robbie won’t wear orange, despite HoJo’s pre-tour sartorial entreaties to the online community. Maybe Robbie don’t surf?
And then there was one. Bailey. You never forget your first time, unless it happens twice, and 29 years apart at that. I’d only seen Thompson Twins once before, back when I was so young and full of brio, ridiculous things like playing a Twins tape for 858 consecutive days seemed both feasible and logical (Tom, if you’re reading, the last 394 days of that stretch were dedicated to Close To The Bone; make of that what you will [insert smiley face emoticon]). The passage of time tends to wipe slates and dreams clean, so while much of 2014’s been devoted to living in the present, I’d kept an eager eye on August 21st since the date was announced. I know I’m not alone in this. You never forget your second first time.
I think Bailey understands this. The Thompson legacy’s been imperilled for the better part of two decades, left untended by its contributing members and whatever remained of management and A&R, subject to varying degrees of dismissiveness and sporadic derision from the tastemakers. All this, despite the fact prime Twins was chock-a-block with wonderfully simpatico production from sundry skilled hands, stoked by some of the best arrangement layering I’ve heard since the days of ABBA, fired by instantly memorable chorus and refrain peaks, signposted with incisive and insightful lyrics, all of it ably and colourfully sung by the Neapolitan Mod Squad (or whatever the hell Rolling Stone called them) in endless balance variants. Or, if you want an assessment in 10 words: superior craftsmanship from the last period of great popular music.
That’s the backstory for boatloads of people attending these shows, and from the moment David Stopps introduces Tom to the strains of an alluringly re-recorded “We Are Detective,” drama’s as high as…as a Midge Ure chorus, for crissakes.
Lights low, nothing trained downstage, dry ice like pea soup, the floor shaking to the churning “In The Name Of Love” intro, a tousle-haired figure purposefully moving through the murk. Next, a spotlight beamed into the audience, that nervy opening verse (“hey you…I’ve seen your face before…”) punching through the mix, swamped in echo, sung as stonily as it was on record 33 cold winters ago and sounding very nearly the same. The chorus arrives. The downstage light nails its mark. And then he’s among us again. Tom Bailey’s among us again, and it’s 1983 or 1984 or 1985 or 1987 again, whenever you were old enough for your parents to let you out for concerts, or whenever you finally cottoned onto Twins songs. The journey’s complete, mission accomplished, cherries ‘n’ champagne corks a-popping .
And man, you should see how the room sways for this guy and his imperilled legacy. The singalongs. The choruses are part of the crowd’s collective DNA. They’ve got the answer vocals to “You Take Me Up” down pat. They’re singing keyboard refrains in the breaks. I saw Keswick with several people I know from the online community, including one family who’d driven up from Florida. They linked arms during “Hold Me Now.” Wouldn’t you?
Tom and band present nine songs in 55 minutes. To my delight, and I hope to yours as well, he often teases the arrangements out to supersized lengths, just as he did in the Twins’ touring years. Call them 10-inch versions; they’re not quite as long as the old extended club mixes, but each spotlights important elements of the songs that usually get buried beneath vocals on the singles. Thoughtful arrangements, cleverly presented. Tom himself plays everything he packed for the bus: Novation synth, Fender electric, harmonica, mounted toms, tambourine. He’s like a kid in a candy store, restless, curious, a bundle of energy.
As support, he’s brought in three players of pedigree: synthesist Amanda Kramer’s been in both Information Society and Golden Palominos; synthesist Angie Pollock’s been in Ian Broudie’s Lightning Seeds, and I saw her touring with Goldfrapp in 2008; electronic kit drummer Emily Dolan Davies was all over Bryan Ferry’s last record, which is as close as a sessioneer gets to a drop-the-mic argument. There’s a lot of work for Pollock and Kramer, handling basics and several leads, leaving just enough room for Bailey to drop in a few solos and intros. Dolan Davies cuts an arresting image, playing with a metronomic fluidity that had me thinking back to Boris Williams’ pre-Cure days as a touring Thompson. All three sing, which is crucial to the Thompson blueprint: Joe Leeway’s and Alannah Currie’s vocals are laced through most important Twins tracks and these renditions would be bereft without high harmonies or answer vocals. I imagine Tom made an executive decision to stay away from songs with significant solos (“We Are Detective,” “Watching”), but this unit, impishly referred to onstage as the “sisters of mercy” is well suited to the task. Pollock reprises the old “Sister Of Mercy” answer vocal with haunting accuracy.
Two songs stand out: “If You Were Here” has been doubled in both verse and duration, and both amendments are inspired winners. The 1983 original, an album track lofted into iconography by association with a triumphal scene in John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles, was a gorgeous record of vapour trail synth lines, an unremitting new wave beat and a whispered lead vocal of heroic longing. This new “If You Were Here” toys with perfection but skirts the pitfall by stripping it of its insularity, building to a (what the hell, why not?) Ure-like intensity by packing a ghostly coo from the Pollock-Kramer-Dolan Davies team into the middle and a staggeringly bold peak into its new verses, replete with yeah-yeah-yeahs and Bailey at full throttle. It might be the second-best song of his career, now.
But “Hold Me Now” is forever The One. Played out at nearly eight minutes, it’s given all the time it needs to establish, lead and, eventually, hand reins to the audience. From the opening piano figure to the naked opening verse, from the first chorus to the rippling instrumental break, from the final verse resolution to the sunburst finale, the basic version you’ll hear on this tour is as spectacular as you’d dare hope. But in some cases, magic blooms. I’m reminded of something Ferry said once about live performances: “Say there are 12 high points in a piece; it’s usually impossible to bring them all out in a studio, you get maybe half of them. In a live performance, though, it’s often possible to bring them all up.” At the Keswick on Friday night, Bailey bullseyed. Ceding control to a raucous throng of leatherlungs, Tom Bailey finally cut the music and brought his sisters of mercy downstage to lead an a cappella round of “Hold Me Now.” The music had ended, but so had the long silence. Tom Bailey, bracketed by his band, bowed deeply and left the stage.
Watch the Keswick Theatre “Hold Me Now” finale: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WZsjfHlN72g