In Concert: Tom Bailey (New York City, July 31 & August 1, 2018)

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with additional reports from shows in Orlando FL (July 3, 2018) and Biloxi MS (July 5, 2018)

Words and pictures: Len Lumbers

Nearly 400,000 pedestrians pass through the Times Square Bowtie on a typical summer’s day. One of the developed world’s most frenetic culture cauldrons, it’s like a pinball machine on perpetual tilt. It’s only a five-minute walk from The Iridium Jazz Club at 51st & Broadway, even allowing for all the stutter-steps and red-light logjams. You can’t fight the Times Square effect as you approach the club; it’s on the soles of your shoes, it’s pinging in your ears, and it’s no ordinary load-in or soundcheck for a performer.

Tom Bailey’s keyboard player strolled down Broadway 90 minutes before the show, her phone recording either for posterity or social media. Well, wouldn’t you?

Nearing halftime on a 60-date North American summer tour – 50 of ‘em in support of Culture Club, the remainder modest headlining gigs in towns both great and small – the Bailey camp struck a strategic jackpot, with a two-night booking on July 31st and August 1st destined to rank among the most memorable for all concerned.

The Iridium’s geared for maximum sensory impact and draws upon multiple historical notions of cultured intimacy: from artifacts and murals ringing the tiny club – capacity, 180 – to the brick-walled stage backdrop, this is a purpose-driven venue; that purpose includes a pre-show dinner taken at your table, invoking halcyon images of supper-club bookings for jazz, pop vocal and blues acts; the FM radio-grade acoustics and nearly faultless sightlines have sired numerous live recordings, some issued on the club’s IridiumLive imprint.

(And the stage-right mural doesn’t pull punches: that’s a larger-than-life Les Paul gazing out over the flock, a pointed reminder The Iridium was the electric guitar innovator’s favourite live venue, where he played a weekly set for the last 14 years of his life.)

To the touring musician, a show at The Iridium must feel like a depth charge in a pot of rice.

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And so, on the last night in July, Tom Bailey strode to the front of the stage dressed head-to-toe in Johnny Cash black, collar popped, a black-and-white eye-charm lapel pin the lone concession to contrast. If shades weren’t already an accoutrement, I’d’ve suggested them. If you’d been following InstaFaceTwit for the past month you’d’ve known this tour’s dress code was Bailey By Wimbledon – all-white, the better to beat the heat. But as his black-clad band took point in swirls of dry ice, one thing came clear – I’ll bet he’d circled this show on his calendar. Well, wouldn’t you?

For eighty minutes, Bailey and band – generally known to the fanbase as the Sisters of Mercy – shimmied and soared over the well-trod (classics from the 1982-1987 period) and the freshly minted alike (Science Fiction’s the new album and raison d’tour, and it’s excellent).

Thompson Twins’ chartbusting successes might suggest the songs would always play better in large halls before swaying masses, but aesthetic perfection was at hand in this basement throwback. With elbow-grazing confines and pristine sound dismissing any notions of remoteness, every salvo found its target. Thus enlivened, the crowd sang back at the band, filling the club with happily sloppy ambience: You Take Me Up’s scale-climbing chorus bounced off the walls like a hootenanny; Lay Your Hands On Me, the familiar version of which was reworked by Nile Rodgers in this very city in 1985, surged with a fervour recalling the East Harlem Hobo Choir’s contribution to the Here’s To Future Days chestnut.

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And through it all, a happy crowd. People swayed in their seats and raised phones for choruses. Peals of excitement greeted every old song. These days, the live arrangements hew pretty closely to what a few of us used to call the “ten-inch versions,” many of which first appeared on 1988’s Best Of Thompson Twins: Greatest Mixes. These fell somewhere between the album/single/video definitives and their 12” extended cousins, with run times similar to what Twins played in concert. People misfile memories as the years pass, so every Bailey audience has a sizeable portion needing a quarter-minute or so to identify what its hearing. This rolling wave of recognition keeps the crowd’s attention, though, and an elongated romp through Lies’ or Love On Your Side’s dramatic digressions is always a good thing when the mood is high.

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I thought about the unmissable feminine element in Thompson Twins records and how Bailey’s chosen to present it. For most of his pop career, Bailey sang words written by a woman. No shrinking violet, Alannah Currie could be trenchant, but in beckoning Tom to her side of the philosophical divide the output was dialectically sound. Meantime, his song arrangements pulled rather than pushed – basslines bounding not thudding, melodies enriched by capricious fills not clenched repetition, choruses wrapped in bright harmony voicings – producing music with slinkier contouring than most superficially similar new wave chart pop.

Since his return to the live arena four years ago, Bailey’s band’s been exclusively female, and it’s no sop to progressive politics. First of all, Currie was an essential component to the vocal blend. Second, this is not a sprawling touring company with parts shared amongst eight or 10 performers. Third, the music’s deftness benefits from a soft touch, and each of Bailey and the Sisters are classically trained. Decades removed from the Thompsons’ scruffy beginnings, Tom Bailey chooses order over chaos.

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The band, London-based professionals awash in their own gigs and projects, evinces youthful positivity and light. Paulina Szczepaniak, a drummer who’s also played synths on select Bailey dates, is a blur, sticks tumbling across her kit like Bamm-Bamm Rubble on Christmas morning. She grounds the songs with a heavy kick. Alice Offley, a keyboardist-bassist double-threat, glides across the stage to engage Tom in brief axe duels; his foil, an interactive element he didn’t have on earlier tours. Charlotte Raven, a keyboardist with (as yet, untapped) multi-instrumentalist possibilities, moves like she’s playing a Wii Motion Plus. She’s a better barometer of rhythm than a Motown percussion track. All three sing, and whether in the call-and-response style of Twins 45s or a wider harmony stack, the vocals are bright and true.

Tom wanders the stage all night long. Electric, acoustic, Novation synth, harmonica, a couple nods to Alannah’s colourful percussion fills: he does it all. Daring to stand under Les Paul. Borrowing a moment on Alice’s Novation whilst she’s downstage. A guitar solo played back by the drumkit. Handshakes and handslaps with the front row. A charming awareness of interactive crowd opportunities (singing “we’re two of a kind, yes we are, yes we are” whilst pointing out two sets of twins in the crowd). A nod to the club’s table arrangements (beginning Doctor! Doctor! with a cheeky “I saw you there…just sitting there…”).

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And through it all, a happy performer. Tom is admirably fit and frisky: there’s no high note of yore he won’t chase, there’s no slackness in his gait, there’s no synth solo he won’t add a flourish to (he can’t curb the playful tinkering, and I think it’s great). The music is fresh for its age, having largely avoided the bruises of decades-long touring or T.V. advert abuse. In sum, the parts are impressive (the Sisters, the leader, the songs). The whole (how’d it make you feel, audience? how’d the audience make you feel, Tom?) is even greater.

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Lucky me, I’ve caught four shows on this tour. Before the New York pair, there were southern shows back around Independence Day. In Florida, opening for Culture Club at the House Of Blues just outside Orlando (July 3), Tom sounded hoarse. He’d lost a battle with the air conditioning on the flight over. The sustain on the high notes just wasn’t there (Doctor! was particulaaaaarly taaaaaaxing). The Sisters – with the redoubtable Amanda Kramer in Charlotte’s spot for the first four gigs  – covered admirably. Maybe this was the genesis for further developing the backing vocals, I dunno. A candid Tom announced his dilemma off the hop and then played a strong enough set the pro-Culture Club crowd gushed noisy approval anyway. And Hold Me Now left ‘em beatific.

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In Mississippi, Tom played his first full-length, headlining show in 31 years at the IP Casino in Biloxi (July 5). The seats were presumably filled with comped gamblers and vacationers. But the floor was filled with legit Twins diehards. They came from Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Canada. They wore matching fan club reunion t-shirts. They gathered beforehand to share old tales of fandom and bask in the giddy expectation of the imminent Science Fiction album. With no hammer over their heads, Bailey & Co. stretched out for a 14-song program of crowd-pleasers, some less-familiar treatments of his personal Twins favourites, and world premieres of two key Science Fiction tracks.

Recovered from his near-death experience with that rogue A/C, Bailey sailed through those personal faves – the ballad version of King For A Day and the 2014 rewrite of If You Were Here – with ease, but a thoughtful, slowed-down Runaway might’ve stolen the show. Branching out with a lengthy mid-song solo at his Novation, he cracked a window into the song’s genesis, one of familial regrets and disappointments. The Fiction premieres joined the single What Kind Of World (already essayed on the UK festival circuit) in adding a genuine extradimensional currency. Out on that floor in Biloxi, absorbing a pair of heretofore-unknowns was a tall order for the fans. But hey, this is why people travel: precious, unrepeatable experiences. Shooting Star attained lift-off with changes Coldplay would die for, the punchy chorus hey-heys and rippling piano work making the strongest impressions. Science Fiction, in an arrangement I’d later come to recognize as from the bonus disc of Fiction remixes, sounded even more promising, with a cotton-candy chorus and a wondrous middle-eight. Evidently taken with its potential, Tom held it back for the encore. And Hold Me Now left the crowd on a cloud.

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Back in the centre of the universe, Tom Bailey had a second Iridium show to play. First one went down so well the team hired the in-house camera guy to film the finale. Still in rock-star black, but in a colourfully psychedelic collared shirt to mark the difference. Details matter. The ballad-speed King For A Day replaced the churning, clarion-like In The Name Of Love as an intimate opener. Bold move! What Kind Of World, by now a fully appointed member of the family, didn’t sound even a speck outta place between the clattering Love On Your Side and a typically rousing You Take Me Up. Runaway reappeared mid-set after missing several shows. Lay Your Hands On Me – once dismissed by its author as a Hold Me Now clone (and perhaps he was fixating on the Alex Sadkin-recorded original at the time) – reaffirmed its bona fides as a glittering collision of tender sentiment and hands-in-the-air testifyin’; I hope it never leaves the set. Paulina, Alice and Charlotte transformed Science Fiction into a bustling groover, locked down with choppy synth chords and rumbling bass over a stiff-backed beat; it’s gratifying to see new things happening to still-new songs.

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And Hold Me Now?

‘Twas Hold Me Now. To paraphrase New York critic Robert Christgau, it’s a record that’s repaid repeated listenings in the daily life of someone with 5,000 other records (or whatever I’m up to, it’s close) to get to. Any room Tom Bailey plays for the rest of his performing life knows it’s coming, how it’ll begin, and – thanks to a crowd contribution first glimpsed in Philadelphia back in 2014 – how it’s going to end. There will be that heaven-sent piano figure and a scream of genuine delight from the crowd at the start. There will be early chorus attempts from scattered audience members while the band builds to the vocal. The crowd’ll absorb the coolly impassioned verses and the gorgeously simple refrain, the fluttering piano spotlight and the spartan breakdown. The Muhammad Ali of end runs – the “you ask if I love you” verse as butterfly, the cycling call-and-response chorus as bee – will seemingly stop all time. I’ve seen it. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen it: the most genuinely smiley finale this side of a Brian Wilson concert encore. Drawing the blueprint in 2014, the last ticks of Hold Me Now were initially intended as a modest set of downstrokes on Tom’s Fender. No longer. The crowd takes the cue, takes over. Tools down and IEMs out, Charlotte and Alice gather downstage while Paulina extricates herself from her kit. Sometimes she brings her sticks, maybe in case the throng needs a tempo check. They don’t. They’re singing to the beat of their hearts.

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Setlists for y’all:

July 3, 2018 Orlando House Of Blues setlist link

July 5, 2018 Biloxi IP Casino and Resort setlist:

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July 31, 2018 New York City Iridium Jazz Club setlist link

August 1, 2018 New York City Iridium Jazz Club setlist:

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