Sunday, August 29, 2010

Something happens and I'm head over heels...

I almost had given up hope that I would get to a repeat of the Midlife Crisis Summer Tour with the Troika this year; last year brought the epic Depeche Mode excursion, and while we had looked a few times for a good follow-up this summer, a strong option had not presented itself. Until Tears For Fears announced dates that included Charlotte, and then it was on. One weekend before Labor Day, it finally was on.

Once again, I'll invoke the 'what happens on a Troika roadtrip stays on a Troika roadtrip' clause, but suffice it to say that we easily upped the ante on late-night fully clothed hotel pool jumping this time around. Why do police forfeit whatever authority they might project, the moment they start pedaling a bicycle with the little miner light on the front?

No, this note is about Tears For Fears. It is not fair to compare this show to DM's show last summer; DM rocked a massive pavillion, and TFF had an audience of about 500 at the nice, if oddly laid-out Fillmore. DM's list of hits is what, five or six times longer than TFF's? That said, when it comes to eighties nostalgia, TFF are a worthy reason for a road trip, not only becuase their best songs hold up so well, but because they give a really good show.

Roland Orzabal in particular is a must-hear; his voice is just as strong as it was twenty five years ago, and his range, baritone to falsetto, is completely intact. I don't know if Curt Smith has lost power, or if he was always the lesser vocalist live, but he had to make up for his limitations with intensity. I'm always struck by their complementarity as vocalists, particularly in studio recordings. They had a straightforward backup group: one guy who played bass or guitar depending on what Curt was playing, a drummer, a keyboardist, and Wainwright - the unfortunate opening act (think coffee house, not party starter) who earned his keep twice over with an astonishing rendition of Oleta Adams's part on 'Woman in chains'.

I'm not going to pretend I've paid any attention to TFF since 'Break it down again' in, what, 1993? I know Curt left the project, then returned. When I did my homework with the set list in preparation for the show, their more recent material left me pretty much cold (think of Berlin's early singles, and then Berlin's adult contemporary sell-out for the Top Gun soundtrack, and you have an apt comparison.) There was a dull patch of about five newer songs in the second half of the set that I could have done without. But 'Mad world', 'Pale shelter', 'Memories fade', 'Everybody wants to rule the world', 'Shout', 'Head over heels' (especially 'Head over heels'), 'Sowing the seeds of love', 'Woman in chains', and 'Break it down again' are a pretty kick-ass set all by themselves. Other than a sequencer mishap that took the chunk-chunks out of 'Mad world' partway through, the live versions were remarkably faithful to the originals.

The big insight for me? I had never considered how significant an influence prog rock - of all things - has been on TFF, from the first album on. Perhaps I didn't know my music history well enough to pick out the markers back then. Perhaps the subtle differences in the live performance forefronted these elements slightly. But consider the song structures, the willingness to make forays into quirky instrumental shifts, the frequent use of head-trippy imagery in the lyrics: it's there from The Hurting all the way through to the more generic stuff I was hearing for the first time. Go back and listen to the guitar parts in 'Pale shelter', the synth solo in 'Head over heels', the Beatles-at-their-most-experimental-esque flourishes on 'Sowing the seeds' - it's there. And I just hadn't realized it. We commonly look to punk and glam for the antecedents of new wave, as well as the synth geeks who populated Keyboard, but only a few prog folks really committed to new wave: Peter Gabriel, possibly Yes, Kate Bush (largely through association with David Gilmour.) I'd suggest that TFF are better understood as songwriters, arrangers and producers if one factors their healthy appreciation for prog.

The show had some weaknesses. For one thing, I never would have guessed that TFF would consider the logos of Alabama and Brooks & Dunn as the primary reference points for their tour logo. So country and weird that there was no way I could bring myself to consider a T-shirt. What am I going to wear to next summer's Troika-palooza now? Also, I'm fairly certain that Roland has had an upper bleph; he had that white-and-wide-eyed look more commonly found on women dans certain age on the upper west side of NYC. Curt's loss of collagen makes him look as though he's had an upper face lift; it's hard to tell. Slightly distracting on both of them, even if they were charming during the breaks between songs.

Another weakness had to have been unwitting, I imagine. Clearly TFF have benefitted in the last few years from Adam Lambert's high profile cover of 'Mad world' - done through the filter of Gary Jules's stripped down version for the Donnie Darko soundtrack. TFF would have been wiser to stick to the original version - which they did, about six songs into the set. But choosing to enter the stage to an slow, orchestral version of it probably reminded the bulk of the audience of the Adam Lambert version, which was a strange first impression. And the American Idol resonance didn't stop there. Two thirds through, Roland inexplicably sang a stripped-down, slowed down version of 'Billie Jean' - I have no idea why - that undoubtedly reminded anyone with American Idol history of the David Cook/Chris Cornell version. Two American Idol references in one eighties-retro concert does not help a band who is still trying to be taken seriously as current artists. Hm.

For me the standout moment was the close of the set, before the encores. 'Head over heels' always has been one of my favorite TFF songs - the nimble melody, the anthemic 'la, la la la la' chorus at the end, even the proggy (ha!) outro on the album version - and the band really knocked it out of the park in the live version. It was great to stand in a room with a bunch of -something year-olds, la-la-ing our hearts out to it. A brilliant chapter to my summer tradition with the Troika.