Sunday, February 1, 2015

Only When You Live: SPAZ reviews SPANDAU BALLET in concert!


Live At 
The Wiltern Theater, 
Los Angeles

(January 24th and 25th, 2015)

Text and pictures by 
Stephen SPAZ Schnee
(All photos from 1/25 performance)

I don't normally write reviews of live shows that I've attended.

The last live show that I reviewed in print was 33 years ago - it was a review of a Split Enz concert that I wrote for my high school newspaper in May of '82. I had skipped my senior prom to go see the band at the Hollywood Palladium.

However, since then, I have reviewed loads of albums over the years. Here on the blog, on All Music Guide, in Yellow Pills, in POPsided, etc. I've written liner notes for over 30 CD reissues. Yet, I've never felt the need to put the live experience into words. 

Attending two recent live shows by Spandau Ballet has inspired me to give it another shot. Since the band are at the start of their world tour, this will merely serve as an appetizer for what fans can expect and possibly encourage others to snap up any available tickets for forthcoming shows...

So, for those who only know Spandau Ballet by "True" and "Gold," here is a brief history: 

Formed in the late '80s: Tony Hadley (vocals), Gary Kemp (guitar), Martin Kemp (bass), John Keeble (drums), and Steve Norman (sax/guitar/percussion) 

They became one of the leaders of the UK's New Romantic movement.

Released their debut single, "To Cut A Long Story Short," in 1980 and their debut album in '81.

Had a friendly rivalry with Duran Duran. (IMHO, Spandau won by writing better songs and having a stronger vocalist. DD lost by sticking around for 35 years and releasing loads of shit albums)

Released their hugely successful True album in '83. Became superstars with "Gold" and the album's title track.

Achieved even more success over the next half-dozen years.

Spandau Ballet split acrimoniously in 1990 after six studio albums.

In the '90s, Hadly, Norman and Keeble unsuccessfully sued songwriter Gary Kemp for a share of royalties.
More acrimony ensued.

All five members surprisingly reunited in 2009, nearly 20 years after their original split. They recorded an acoustic album featuring two new songs (both great, btw!) and toured Europe and elsewhere up through 2010. Unfortunately, no dates in the States...

In 2014, the band premiered their Soul Boys Of The Western World documentary at SXSW in Austin, Texas and played an intimate club date, their first U.S. live performance in nearly 30 years. Towards the end of the year, they released The Story..., a collection of hits plus three new recordings (all fantastic, btw)

In 2015, Spandau Ballet began their world tour in San Francisco. Dates two and three of the tour are discussed immediately following this picture of (l-r) Martin, Tony and Gary.

I was lucky enough in November 2014 to meet and chat with the members of the band in L.A. during a private screening of the Soul Boys... documentary, yet I must admit that I had never seen them live before. That all changed on January 24th, 2015, when I attended the first of their two nights at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles. I also had a ticket to see them the following evening, so I felt like I was making up for lost time.

Before I review both shows, I'd like to direct you to THIS link, where I explain why "True" is my favorite song of all time - and how I tried to explain that to the band members when I met them in November.

So, without further adieu...

January 24th:

Because of two completely different vantage points, I'll give you a run down on the set list for this night and talk more about the band member's performances when reviewing the second night...

Though I was up in the balcony, I was seated in row AA, which was right there at the front row, overlooking the crowd below. There was definitely a feeling of excitement in the air.  This was their first tour in the U.S. in 30 years (not including live appearances on TV shows). The crowd was mixed - all races and ages - but a good majority of them were between the ages of 40 and 50. There's a pretty good chance that, like me, this was their first time seeing the band in action.

Then the lights dimmed and it seemed that time both stood still AND rolled back 30 years.  After a brief pre-recorded musical intro, the Spandau boys (augmented by a keyboardist) opened the set with one of the three new tracks, "Soul Boy" (penned by Hadley), a glorious and massive tune that could easily be used for a James Bond theme. From the moment that opener started, it was obvious that this wasn't a typical 'lets get the band back together and make a quick buck' situation. This was a band on fire, filled with excitement to be playing together again and experiencing the adulation of a manic Los Angeles audience. 

Most of the audience didn't seem to be familiar with "Soul Boy," but when SB kicked into "Highly Strung," the place went mental. Throughout the set, the band fired out numerous hits - including 'Only When You Leave," "Chant. No. 1," "Instinction,"  and "I'll Fly For You," - as well as two more new songs ("This Is The Love" and "Steal"), a few surprises ("How Many Lies" was unexpected, although it is one of my faves), and a superb mini-suite of songs from their first album plus a complete and electrifying "To Cut A Long Story Short" (all with Gary Kemp playing a synthesizer and Norman playing guitar).  Interestingly enough, they saved the songs from the True album and played them together towards the end of the show. "Lifeline" and "Communication" were flawless while their performance of "True" seemed to have sent out an emotional tidal wave that engulfed the entire theater. Keeble then came down from his drum stool, the band thanked the crowd and instead of leaving and coming back for an encore, Keeble went back behind the skins again and they continued to play a few more tracks including the emotionally powerful "Through The Barricades," the anthemic "Fight For Ourselves," and the show closer, "Gold" (yet another song tailor-made for a Bond film).

And then it was over.

No, I didn't cry like a little girl during or after the show, but I was definitely feeling a bit giddy. I've seen a lot of shows in my time dating back to Glen Campbell in '70 or '71, but this was certainly in the Top 3.  Maybe it was because I've been a fan of the band for 35 years?  Well, that could be part of it. But let's be honest: they were fucking GREAT live, even better than I expected.  Why?  Well, I'll talk about that right after this picture of brothers Gary (l) and Martin (r) Kemp.

Before the gig the next night, I attended a soundcheck and a brief meet and greet with the band. My mind was blown when I walked up to have my photo taken with the band and Gary Kemp extended his hand, leaned forward and asked me, "Haven't we met before?" I told him I was at the private screening of the documentary back in November. And then it seemed to register with all the band as they greeted me with smiles and handshakes. OK, I'm not going to lie here... the guy who wrote my favorite song EVER seemed to remember me from a small gathering a few months before. Now, if I was a little girl, I would have peed myself then and there. But no, I'm an old music geek who is supposed to know better... so I had to hold it in... And yes, perhaps Gary does say that to everyone in order to ease nervousness with fans and the like, but I'll pretend he actually did remember me. 

And yes, I do realize that last paragraph might be deemed 'inappropriate' and/or 'unprofessional', but I don't care. I'm a music fan first and foremost. I won't deny that I was quite thrilled to be honest. I kept my cool on the outside, but inside, I was a kid in a big fucking bouncy-house with sugar pulsing through my veins.

But I do wonder if Gary thought that maybe I was the caterer and perhaps he was going to ask me to go grab him a sandwich?

But anyway, onto my thoughts on the second night...

January 25th:

For this second night, I was front row, stage left. I could feel loads of electricity in the audience. Most of their fans had been following the band's exploits on YouTube and Facebook thanks to the folks who attended their San Francisco show two nights before and the previous night's Wiltern show so, needless to say, the audience was primed and ready...

The setlist for this second show was identical to the first night, so now I'll just concentrate on the actual performances...

As I alluded to before, this is no nostalgia act. This is a band that is alive and intense. Because they had such a huge hit with a ballad like "True," there are those who think of the band as lightweight and wimpy. Tell that to the man behind the drums, Mr. John Keeble, and he is sure to prove them wrong. Keeble brings such a heavy rock presence to the band that those naysayers would be pleasantly surprised at just how rocking the band gets during the nearly two hour set. Gary Kemp slashes, strums and picks at his guitar with ease but never over-playing - the songs and the dynamics of the arrangements don't need it. His brother Martin - the one that makes all the ladies swoon - plays beautifully, keeping up with Keeble's forceful playing, and he looks damn good doing it.  He's never without a grin on his face as he looks out into the audience and at his bandmates.  Norman switches instruments quickly and effortlessly, honking on the sax one moment, pounding out some percussion the next and then bashing away at the guitar moments later. Moving from his percussion set up at the back of stage left to center stage while blowing his horn made me nervous a few times (their last U.S. tour three decades ago was cut short by an injury he sustained while making his sax sing!). 

And Hadley?  Pardon my French, but that fucker can sing! Most vocalists lose their power as they get older, but not dear ol' Tony - he sounds better now than he ever has. He can hold those notes... and then hold them a little longer... through the entire set. Un-fricken-believable! (NOTE: He did seem to have an ongoing problem with his earpiece on night #2, but it certainly didn't affect his performance.)

There were no costume changes apart from the removal of a jacket or two. There were no explosions on stage. There were no gimmicks. These were shows that relied on nothing but top songs and a passion for performing them. This was not a band going through the motions. In fact, it seemed like they were enjoying playing the songs as much as the audience was enjoying the experience of watching them play. There was a connection between the band of the audience that I seldom see. The band fed off the audience of the audience fed off the band. Nobody went home hungry. (But just in case you were hungry, there were plenty of street vendors selling stomach ache-inducing hot dogs right outside the venue. I ordered a beagle with extra ketchup and bought a puggle to go.)

Most importantly, the band's interaction was touching. When I met then in November, it was obvious that Spandau Ballet was a band of brothers. For some reason, I tend to focus on how people interact with each other, and there was real love and respect between the members of the band during that screening I attended. For both shows at The Wiltern, that love and respect was there ten-fold. The way the band glanced back and forth, the quick little hugs and pats on the back after solos and songs - that really made the performance come to life.  The band was glowing and electric - so much so that they could have charged my iPhone in seconds flat. However, I didn't want to find out where I was supposed to plug in my charger!

From where I stood during the second show, I'd say that was far and away the better of the two sets. They were definitely much more loose and really seemed like they were having the time of their lives. I can definitely say that I was, too. 

I cannot wait to see them again.

SPANDAU BALLET resume their Soul Boys Of The Western World Tour On March 3rd, 2015. They will be back on U.S. shores in April.  Go HERE for tour dates. 

Special thanks to:

Robert Greenwood


Eva López said...

Thanks for this wonderful review! I've really felt like a little girl and I've cried with emotion (but not peed myself, i promise!)!!! Touchy!

Stephen SPAZ Schnee said...

Thank you for taking the time to read it, Eva! And for posting the lovely comment!