Boy George’s recent transformation from...let’s face it...chunky bloke with a police record, drug addiction and penchant for doing stuff that we don’t need to rake over anymore...is nothing short of incredible. If that opening description sounds a little harsh it’s meant to be. George is surely one of the best pop stars we’ve ever had. He coloured my adolescence and was a vital part of that magical soundtrack of the early 80s. To see him fall to pieces, occasionally edging dangerously close to Mr G. Reaper, was pretty sad for all concerned, not least George himself no doubt. He’s been pretty upfront and honest about his various ups and downs but now he’s back, back, BACK (as they used to say in Smash Hits) with his first new album and tour in three years (in recent promotional activities people seem to have forgotten about 2010’s Ordinary Alien for some reason...very odd). Thirty years on from Culture Club’s heyday would we still be mad about the Boy?
First up a little ramshackle glam punk courtesy of The Featherz. Unable to soundcheck (I think they got there a late EDIT: Correction, apparently George and co were a little tardy) they seemed a little wrong footed at first but heck, that’s the punk spirit right? I can’t imagine the MC5, Stooges and Pistols sound checking back in the day. Fronted by Bowie fan Danie Cox (sporting a rather fine Ziggy cut) they tumbled through half a dozen tracks culminating in When Was The Last Time You Had Sex, as gloriously fucked up as Tracey Emin’s unmade bed. Check out this live recording from one of their recent shows! (thanks to the fabulously dressed Featherz fan David for the link).
Preceded by his 9 piece band George comes on to the modest Glee Club stage to predictably wild applause. He looks fabulous. Whilst the jury might be out on the facial hair (for the record I rather like it) the difference between the poor puffy faced soul seen sweeping the streets in New York in 2006 and this bright eyed glamorous creature is astonishing. Looks ain’t everything though. Far from it in fact. What matters is the voice and, as with his last show in Birmingham a few years back, it’s aged well. Deeper now than before it still retains that hint of blues and gospel that made Culture Club tracks sound so distinctive. George has spoken about “having the road in his voice” I think he meant in a touring context but it’s equally applicable to the great road that is life itself. It’s a neat way of describing each late night, drunken drugged up escapade, broken heart, triumph, tragedy, trauma, fuck...and cup of tea...that flavours every note he sings. I’ve always thought that the difference between, say, the old blues singers of the 20s and 30s and many of today’s versions is that the former endured the kind of hardships that happily no longer exist in most civilised societies these days. This gives the voice that unmistakable edge. It’s not something that can be taught or faked. You either got it or you don’t. And George has it.
Happily despite all of the crap of the last decade or two he seems to be in a great place these days and the gig itself had a delightfully intimate and celebratory feel with George clearly loving every minute of it. There’s often been a reggae vibe going on his music and this evening it was more prominent than ever. Opening with the laid back deeply dubby Play Me and backed by a fine pair of female vocalists it’s the kind of track that makes you want to roll a phat one, curl up on a bean bag and watch lava lamps for an hour or six. Feel The Vibration picked up the pace, adding a bit of a Middle Eastern funk feel to the mix as George shimmied across the stage, before Live Your Life saw the Boy and the Band go all UB40 on our ass (that’s a good thing by the way). Perhaps one of the most confessional songs of the evening it’s the sound of ‘Man’ George drawing a line under his past and looking ahead to the future “Daddy was cruel, tried to make him tough” sang George, before delivering the more optimistic “Now is the time to live your life, you can’t rewind”. Critics might sneer at the simplicity of this lyric but how many of us spend far too much time looking back? Exactly.
In between tracks he seemed really at ease, chatting with the crowd and acknowledging the hardcore fans in the front row who’d literally come from all over the world to be at these shows. Rewarding their devotion he played a number of ‘the hits’, a mellow Everything I Own (featuring an acapella chorus from the crowd) and a brilliantly brassed up Church Of The Poison Mind (kudos to any female vocalist who does such a good job of filling Helen Terry’s shoes).
There was also a moving tribute to one of his heroes Lou Reed courtesy of Satellite of Love and a subtle reinterpretation of Do You Really Want To Hurt Me featuring a deliciously bluesy opening trumpet solo, Hammond organ and another obligatory crowd sing along. The main set ended on a high with the gospel funk of Bigger Than War, already one of the standout tracks of the new album This Is What I Do it’s soooo much better live.
Still not convinced about the rap bit but hell, it’s his party.
Whereas most encores consist of just a track or two George played about half a dozen.
Coming back onstage wearing a jacket that a fan had given to him during the set he kicked off with recent single King of Everything...or Queen of Everything as he renamed it tonight. Ahem. Karma Chameleon was sloooooooowed down and dubbed up (Calmer Chameleon anyone?), refreshing perhaps the Boy’s biggest song, a Hammond driven cover of Get It On put the XXX in T-Rex before the night closed in suitably upbeat style with the happy clappy Krishna klassic Bow Down Mister.
Okay, so I’m a fan but after several false dawns it really does look as if the Boy’s back. With a Culture Club reunion mooted for 2014 (live dates and a new album) and George in the best shape (physically and seemingly mentally too) for decades the future looks brighter than anyone might’ve hoped. To borrow one of the Club’s biggest hits, It’s A Miracle.
PS: Hanging around after the show I didn’t expect to see George come out again...but he did. There must have been around 50 or so fans gathered around the backstage door...some were, let’s say, particularly ‘enthusiastic’...and he patiently posed with every single one, even taking the photos with their camera phones himself. It must’ve taken 30 minutes or more. He didn’t need to do this, he’d put on a great show but perhaps he’s as happy to be back as the fans are to have him here? Whatever the reason any artist 30+ years into his or her career who still spends the time pressing the flesh deserves a healthy dollop of respect.