Monday, October 01, 2012

Marc Almond / Baby Dee @ Symphony Hall, Birmingham, Friday 28th September 2012

As I always feel compelled to point out every time I post anything about Marc Almond he’s the only artist I’ve stuck with through thick and thin ever since getting into Soft Cell way, way back in 1981 (good grief...) and then reconnecting with him via his solo stuff around the Stories of Johnny album (1985). Marc was my first proper gig too, in 1988 at The Powerhouse, still one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. In the intervening years I’ve seen him play some great shows (12 Years of Tears in Nottingham 1992 for instance) and, sad to say, some stinkers (New Alexandra Theatre 2009). Clearly the near fatal motorcycle crash that he suffered in 2004 had an impact on his ability to perform to his full potential for a while and it’s frankly a miracle that he’s made such an amazing recovery. Allowances can obviously be made for the odd forgotten lyric then. My problem with some of his more recent shows though has been a tendency to camp things up a little too much, changing the lyrics to Mother Fist for example (“when I’m downtown in Birmingham” at the last show I was the love of all things holy...please don’t do that). Plus, it has to be said, some of the musicians that he’s worked with on the live shows have, to me at least, seemed a little...well...lacklustre. That’s a huge shame. Look at footage of the recent Meltdown show (in which he played the whole of the Marc and the Mambas classic Torment and Toreros with an orchestra) and it’s clear to see what a difference a really good band can make. So then...the big question...would tonight go in the box marked ‘great Almond shows’ or would it join the pile of ‘oh dear, not again’?

First up Almond’s favourite support act, Baby Dee. Glammed up tonight with Cyndi Lauper’s hair and squeezed precariously into a prom dress she’s one of the most remarkable performers you’re ever likely to see or hear. It’s that voice that gets me or, to be more accurate, those get at least five for the price of one...occasionally even in the same line of a song. There’s operatic Dee, salty sea dog Dee, great Aunt Dee, Tom Waits Dee, aging sheep Dee...remarkable. Personally I love her and tonight, seated behind a piano in the more up market surroundings of the Symphony Hall, the songs and that voice were simply stunning, from the honky tonk madness of The Only Bones That Show to the Weimer-ish insanity of The Early King. By the way Dee’s back story is crying out for movie treatment. Born a man, worked as an organist at a Catholic church in the Bronx, had a sex change, became a performance artist in Coney Island, worked as a tree surgeon, befriended Anthony Hegarty...and that’s just the stuff on Wikipedia. Now that’s a life.

Anyway, after the delightful Dee time for Marc and tonight we were promised a greatest hits set (this tour was supposed to promote an accompanying album but its release has been delayed until next year). On paper this looked like a mouth watering prospect, an update of arguably his finest live show 1992’s 12 Years Of Tears. Kicking off with a triumphant, celebratory The Stars We Are pretty much set the tone for the whole night. The (in)famous voice was in fine shape, he looked cool as a fresh from the fridge cucumber, the musicians had more oomph (yep, that’s a technical term), the sound was impressive and...oh deep joy...Almond kept the humour for the in between song chatty bits. The choice of material was top notch too, an Almond fan’s wet dream pretty much covering his whole career with a natural focus on his unbelievably fertile early period of 81 – 88 (during which time he released four studio albums with Soft Cell, two double albums with Marc and the Mambas, four solo albums (plus a live album) and three EP’s...phew!). After a moving Always, Almond touchingly dedicated his next song to a fan’s sister, Stephanie, who passed away recently. Singing the line “I fall to my knees” he did just that, clutching his fist to his heart in a rare but potent moment of theatricality. 

Some of the later material, especially the stuff from Enchanted, which sounded a touch overproduced on record benefitted hugely from the more stripped back set up this evening with The Desperate Hours and Waifs and Strays in particular both proving a revelation (although a touch of flamenco on the former wouldn't have been a bad idea). The old diva in him was well and truly back in action too with a much deserved outburst aimed at some people chatting through one of the quieter numbers and one or two latecomers disturbing the mood too. He had a few gripes about the lighting as well. Good to see that fire back in his belly. The mid set trio of tracks from Mother Fist and Her Five Daughters took me lurching back to my teens. Most people have an album that really means something to them and Fist is mine. I was 16 when it came out...always a difficult time for a young chap...and its incredibly atmospheric mix of music and lyrics were a window into some kind of exotic wonderland inhabited by “one legged crooks and Armenian cooks”. Tonight Ruby Red, Melancholy Rose and a gloriously debauched Mother Fist (Almond really gave it quality) recreated that world in a way that his more recent shows had (for me at least) singularly failed to do. You Have, from debut solo album Vermine in Ermine, was as bouncy as ever and as a moving tribute to the recently departed Andy Williams, Almond wheeled out his Happy Heart, kitsch as hell perhaps but all the more joyful for it (check out this You Tubers account for some more great live vids from the current tour by the way).

Someone shouted out for Sex Dwarf but Marc wisely declined “I can’t fit into those leather outfits now!” It’s unlikely he’ll ever revisit the seedier side of Soft Cell again least we have the videos. Anyway, on to the undisputed highlight of the evening and Almond’s chance to show off his skills as an interpreter of the work of the late, great Jacques Brel with the pairing of If You Go Away and The Bulls. I’m not one for blubbing in public but the performance of If You Go Away this evening left me a little moist. It’s a devastating song anyway but the timing, emphasis on certain words and simple but effective gestures transformed it from mere performance to something far more emotionally compelling. Simply Brel-liant. The Bulls was equally impressive, with Almond almost pawing the ground as he sang, again a subtle thing but when the musical setting’s so stripped back (just Almond with Martin Watkins on piano) less is more. Loved the audience’s screams during the line “The moment of triumph when the girls shout and scream the name of their hero” by the way, perfect timing ladies...and one or two gents too I imagine.

After a quick tour Backstage and the obligatory Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart the first Soft Cell track of the evening reared its head with Where The Heart Is. One of the more neglected Cell singles it’s the perfect example of Almond’s twisted vision of suburbia, a theme that seemed to be something of an obsession for a while (see also Frustration, Seedy Films, Secret Life etc). Less 80s sounding this evening, with more of a 70s feel to the keyboards perhaps, it was followed by a pair of highly successful cover versions in The Days of Pearly Spencer (which reached the dizzy heights of number 4 in the UK charts) and Jacky (number 17 in the charts). Fittingly the night finished with something of a booty shaking (yes, my booty was indeed shaken...I apologise to anyone who got in the way of it) party atmosphere and a crowd pleasing run of Cell classics, Bedsitter, Tainted Love, What!, Say Hello Wave Goodbye and, fresh from Almond’s recent appearance at a T-Rex tribute show, Hot Love (Baby Dee really went for it on this go girl!).  

I’ll admit it, I’d lost a little faith in Marc after the last few shows I’d seen but tonight it was well and truly restored. Admittedly I’d have liked a few more musicians up there, some strings and a bit of brass perhaps, and inevitably there were a few songs that I’d would’ve loved to have Tears Run Rings for instance, but you can’t fit a thirty year career into a two hour show eh? These are minor quibbles though, tonight was nothing less than a triumphant return to form. Here’s to the next 30 years.

Setlist: The Stars We Are / Always / Hand Over My Heart / The Desperate Hours / Waifs and Strays / Nijinsky Heart / Tenderness Is A Weakness / Ruby Red / Melancholy Rose / Mother Fist / You Have / Happy Heart / If You Go Away / The Bulls / Backstage / Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart / Where The Heart Is / Days Of Pearly Spencer / Jacky / Bedsitter / Tainted Love / What! / Say Hello Wave Goodbye / Hot Love (T-Rex cover)  


Annie said...

Excellent review. I loved the show, (even without Tears Run Rings and Stories of Johnny :)

To be honest, Baby Dee is not to my taste, but Marc was on top form, and he seemed much more relaxed and happy than the last time I saw him at The Alex.

On a seperate note, I shouldn't use your blog to moan, but why is it that when artists like Marc play tatty venues like the old Academy, for beer money ticket prices, the audience is usually real fans. But as soon as they play an upmarket venue or stadium, with a commesurate rise in price, suddenly all the idiots want to go along. I kid you not, the woman in front of me sat playing with her mobile phone (and didn't even bother to clap politely) for virtually the whole gig, only showing any interest when he did the old Soft Cell stuff. Sorry, rant over!

Anway, the Brel songs were superb, and If You Go Away was worth the ticket money alone. Top gig.

The Baron said...

Thanks Annie! Yes, I appreciate that Dee's an acquired taste!

This show was so much better than the one at The Alex, he just seemed much more 'together' this time. I was lucky with my seat, no one was chatting near me this time, but I'm totally in agreement with you on people who fail to appreciate the whole show. Personally I'd like mobiles banned from gigs altogether...actually I'd just like them banned...I actually see people standing AT THE FRONT of gigs, just a few feet away from the band, texting their mates. What's the point in going to a gig if you're going to do that eh? You're right, there is also a correlation between the type of venue and the kind of audience you get there. At times Marc seemed to want more life from the crowd but then again a seated venue doesn't really lend itself to that kind of atmosphere. I think he'd be better playing the Town Hall, you could remove the seats downstairs (they do this for loads of gigs there) and make that standing but leave the seats upstairs for those who wanted to sit. Best of both worlds. I'll be interested to see what he does next in terms of touring. He's at a bit of a crossroads, does he stick with the theatre circuit or go back to the more traditional gig venues? I daresay the theatre shows pay better but I'm not convinced he's totally happy with it. That being said this evening was excellent, the only real gripe would be the relative sparseness of the musical backing but then again the Brel stuff doesn't need any.