Monday, August 25, 2008

At Jones Beach: Five Bands, One Concert, One Decade (the 1980s)

Last Friday, on a beautiful night at the picturesque Nikon at Jones Beach Theater, Martin Fry, lead singer of ABC, in the middle of a song, looked at the crowd and said, "Isn't it great to be back in the 80s?" For five bands and an audience of fortysomethings, it really was. None of the five acts on the Regeneration Tour could have played a hockey arena-sized venue on its own (and several couldn't have done so even back in the decade of the skinny ties). And for the fans, it was a true nostalgia trip, a chance to revisit the soundtrack of their high school and/or college years for four hours on a Friday night.

The show kicked off with synth-pop curiosity Naked Eyes, who had the unenviable task of playing in daylight to a very sparse crowd (the theater eventually filled to about two-thirds capacity). Lead singer/rhythm guitarist Pete Byrne, backed only by two keyboardists and a drummer (who played an electronic kit), still can sing, opening and closing the band's 25-minute set with its two hits ("Always Something There to Remind Me" and "Promises, Promises"), both of which sounded great. But the thin backing and slight songs were no match for the cavernous stadium, making Naked Eyes seem like no more than a novelty act.

A Flock of Seagulls followed with a 25-minute set of repetitive, spacey 1980s pop. Lead singer Mike Score (the only original member on stage) sounded pretty rough around the edges. Back in the day, I kind of liked the Flock, but this show was lackluster. While the band played two of its minor hits ("Wishing" and "Space Age Love Song"), there was a just-going-through-the-motions feeling to the set, as if the whole thing was just an excuse to get to the band's big hit, "I Ran," which did get the crowd up and dancing.

The fun of "I Ran" was a good segue into the surprise of the night, the outstanding ABC. Fry, wearing one of his signature glammy suits (this one was orange), entertained the crowd, making use of his Bryan-Ferry-on-Prozac vocals, sly wit and stage presence of a 1960s soul star to lead the spot-on band through an entertaining 35-minute set. ABC turns out to be one of those bands where you know more of their songs than you think you do, so it was able to play its 1980s MTV standard "Poison Arrow" second and close with Top 20 hit "Look of Love," leaving plenty of material, including two Top 10 hits ("When Smokey Sings" and "Be Near Me"), to fill out the program.

Before the show, I would have equated ABC with Naked Eyes as an act that had no relevance outside of the 1980s. But after watching Fry and his backing musicians (Fry was one of only two original ABC members present) perform, ABC acquitted itself as a legitimate band.

As if any further proof was needed, after a short break, ABC's band (minus Fry, but plus a lead guitar player) returned to back Belinda Carlisle, lead singer of the Go-Go's. On paper, Carlisle was the "one of these things is not like the other" act of the night: She is a solo artist rather than a band, she is a woman, and she is American. But it was nice to get a break from the parade of keyboards-based acts and listen to some guitar-oriented pop rock.

Carlisle is one of the rare performers who seems to get better with age. She has developed not only her vocal abilities, but her stage presence, honing a fun, sexy, sometimes bitchy vibe that works (at least for me, my wife found her to be a bit annoying, especially when she playfully told the crowd to "shut up" so she could perform the breathy, near-whisper third verse of "Mad About You").

Her 35-minute set mixed three Go-Go's songs in with her solo hits. I prefer the Go-Go's to Carlisle as a solo artist, but I noticed something interesting about the Go-Go's songs during the show: They work much better when performed by the actual Go-Go's. ABC's band provided a kind of polished bombast to "Vacation," "Our Lips Are Sealed" and "We Got the Beat" that took the charm out of these slight-but-fun anthems. Even with that complaint, though, Carlisle's set was my favorite one of the night.

But she was not the headliner. That honor fell to the Human League. And once the band's set began, you kind of realized why. To many Americans, the Human League is the one-hit wonder with the massive 1981 hit "Don't You Want Me," but in its native U.K., the band is far more successful. As an early synth-based outfit, its influence is apparent in the techno and industrial acts that followed. And unlike Naked Eyes, Flock of Seagulls and ABC, the Human League has continued steadily on the scene after its 1980s highlight to the current day.

The great thing about a multiple-act bill is you will sometimes get to see a type of show that you never would think to attend on its own. In this case, I have never seen anything like the Human League. Lead singer Philip Oakey and back-up vocalists Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall (all in the band since 1980) sang in front of four evenly spaced all-white platforms, each containing a backing musician dressed in black (from left to right, a drummer, guitar/keyboardist, keyboardist, and Apple laptop operator). The Human League was the only act to make use of video, deploying on-the-nose images (like the faces of British and American politicians morphing into each other, a not-so-subtle indictment that all politicians are alike) on a series of hanging rectangular screens at the back of the stage.

The 45-minute set felt different than the average rock show, and not just because the songs were dominated by keyboards and electronic beats rather than power chords. Oakey, dressed originally in a black trench coat (looking like a middle-aged Neo from "The Matrix") and later in a suit, led the band through a highly-choreographed, almost formal show. He told us no less than three times that "We are the Human League" and "This is the Regeneration Tour." It was an interesting and odd combination, half Motown revue and half scene from "1984" (the book, but the year also kind of applies, too).

Like ABC, the Human League have more songs that you know than you think, including "Human" (a number-one hit in the U.S.), "Fascination," "The Lebanon" and "Mirror Man." By the time the band got to its faithful but energized take on "Don't You Want Me," the portion of the crowd that was skeptical at the beginning of the set (some of the less open-minded folks fled in a panic at the onslaught of electronics and lights that accompanied the band's first number) had been won over, singing and dancing along. Sulley even let the crowd sing one of the lines from her verse of "Don't You Want Me" ("I still love you").

Don't get me wrong: I am not selling all my Tom Petty CDs and trading them in for techno recordings. But I was happy to get an opportunity to see what a show like that entailed, and it was genuinely fun watching the Human League do its thing.

Come to think of it, the idea of sampling a half-hour (give or take) of five acts, most of whom didn't need much more, was one of the best things about the Regeneration Tour. You never really got bored. The bands stayed around just long enough to play their few hits, and then they cleared the stage, making room for the next act. Well, that and the nostalgia factor. On a pleasantly cool and clear Friday night at the beach, it was, in fact, great to be back in the 1980s.

Set Lists
Friday August 22, 2008
Nikon at Jones Beach Theater

Naked Eyes
Always Something There to Remind Me
Fortune and Fame
Losing You
Get on It
Promises Promises

A Flock of Seagulls
Modern Love Is Automatic
The More You Live, the More You Love
Space Age Love Song
I Ran

For the Very First Time
Poison Arrow
How to Be a Millionaire
Tears Are Not Enough
Be Near Me
When Smokey Sings
Look of Love

Belinda Carlisle
Live Your Life Be Free
I Get Weak
Circle in the Sand
Leave a Light On
Mad About You
Our Lips Are Sealed
We Got the Beat
Heaven Is a Place on Earth

Human League
Mirror Man
Tell Me When
Love Action
The Sound of the Crowd
The Lebanon
Don't You Want Me
Together in Electric Dreams