Monday, August 14, 2017

Six '80s Bands in Search of a Headliner

A few months ago, Denise asked me if I had any interest in seeing The Retro Futura Tour in Atlantic City on Friday, August 11.

"What pray tell, is the Retro Futura Tour?" you ask. Good question.

As it turns out, The Retro Futura Tour is a tour put together by some enterprising booking agent, made up of six '80s bands, all of who had their moments during the Reagan/Bush era, but none of whom is necessarily a huge draw on their own. Or, as I like to call it, Six Bands in Search of a Headliner.

"Who's playing?" I asked. I'm sure you just asked the same question. OK, there's Katrina Leskanich (alias Katrina, sans The Waves). There's The English Beat. Pretty solid band, but I just saw them last year, opening at The Paramount for Squeeze. Paul Young. Who? Turns out he's a new wave guy who had a few hits with cover songs during the Decade of Excess, and played with a few lesser known bands like Q-Tips. OK, so far, not piquing my interest too much.

Next -- Howard Jones. Now I'm getting to point in my life where I'm starting to think Bucket List -- I'm interested in seeing bands that I've always wanted to see and never quite made it out for before. Jones is a solid artist -- certainly his Human's Lib album is a classic, and the follow-up, Dream Into Action had some good stuff on it as well. But I've already seen Jones a couple of times in my life, once during his heyday, and once with Human League (I think) and Culture Club in the '90s at Jones Beach. He was great the first time, a little forgettable the second. Not quite enough to sell me, although not bad.

Then there's Modern English. They're another one hit wonder, but that hit, "I Melt With You" was a classic. The problem is: 1. I think I've seen them before at local club in either Long Beach or Island Park, with Iridesense opening for them; and 2. I definitely saw Ted Mason, who used to be in Modern English, in a band with his brother called The Blue Mocking Birds. He was being billed at the time as "the guy who wrote 'I Melt With You,'" and he did the suckiest solo cover of the song I ever heard. So again, a slight plus, but not enough to totally win me over.

And then came the band that sold me on the show, another one-hit (really, one-and-a-half hits) wonder, but what a hit! Men Without Hats, the Canadian wonder-kids that did one of the most seminal songs of the '80s, "The Safety Dance". Hell, what fan of '80s New Wave wouldn't want to see Men Without Hats do "Safety Dance"?! And if they don't really have enough great material to carry a whole show, who cares, if they're packaged with a bunch of other decent bands. So hell yeah, count me in!

As it turns out, this was one of the most fun shows of the summer. Now Denise and I have been traveling almost every weekend since early July, and at this time of the year, that kind of sucks. Traffic into and out of New York City is torturous, so it took five hours each way to get to Atlantic City and back. But at least the show was worth it.

The show was being held at The Borgota Event Center, so we showed up at the casino an hour early and made our ritual monetary sacrifice to the gambling gods. Then it was up to the Event Center, a reasonably classy venue to see a show. It was a somewhat mixed crowd, mostly old-timers and middle-aged people, with a few young adults thrown in, and the occasional token teen or younger. I'd say the show was about two-thirds sold out, which is still a win for The Borgota, because I'm sure most of this crowd had a few bucks to stay and gamble with.

Up first was Katrina Leskanich. Now before the show, I suggested I might try to stir up some trouble by trying to get a chant of "We want The Waves!" going. But Denise threatened my life, so I thought better of it. As it turns out, Katrina is more of a country girl than I was aware of -- apparently she grew up in Kansas. She did a short 3-song set that got the night started off in style, stirring up the crowd by closing with her big hit, "Walking on Sunshine".

The second set, also three songs long, was performed by Paul Young. I would have referred to Young as an "old guy", but then I looked him up and discovered he was only born the year before I was, so obviously, I would have been mistaken <cough, cough>. Young did a slow but romantic set, swinging his mic stand around, then getting on his knees and looking deeply into the eyes of some of the '80s girls in the front row as he sang directly to them. For a mature gentleman, he really knows how to sex up the ladies. The only song I recognized was his cover of Hall & Oats's "Every Time You Go Away", but Denise knew all three songs. So check, two-for-two as far as good sets go.

Next up -- Modern English. Now a couple of things -- I've since looked it up, and it seems that Ted Mason might have been overselling things when he claimed to be the guy who wrote "I Melt With You." He was, in fact, a member of Modern English, but he wasn't one of the original members of the band. He was probably in the band when they wrote the song, and although I haven't been able to find out for sure, I suspect this was one of those songs where the full band took writing credit, so he may have been somewhat truthful. Anyway, Mason is not part of the current rendition of the band.

Now here are the negatives of The Modern English set: for one thing, they're a little loose as a band. Not bad, by any means, but there were times their timing was just a touch off (as compared, say, to The English Beat, who was deadly tight). And the second thing is that lead singer, Robbie Grey has what I'd call an average voice at this stage of his life. Again, it's not bad, it's not painful in any way. But I just had a feeling that if I picked out any one of the ushers, who were lined up against the wall, at random, chances are, their voice would have been just as good.

But for all that, Modern English still had a really enjoyable set. Their first song, "Ink and Paper" was an OK number from their 1986 album Stop Start. But next, they did a song called "Moonbeam" from their brand new album (the only new song of the night), and it was really good. It had a weird Indian-sounding guitar line that I liked a lot, enough so that after their set, I ran out to the concession area and bought Take Me to the Trees, the new album that contains it. And when they closed with "I Melt With You", it was magic! The whole arena was up and dancing (including all the '80s girls in the audience, plus this one frightening behemoth of a guy throwing his arms around so wildly, I wanted to shoot him with a tranquilizer dart like he was a runaway moose). For me, "I Melt With You" was the second biggest highlight of the whole evening.

As the roadies did a quick set change for the next band, I like to think that somewhere upstairs at The Borgota, in a really nice room, Katrina and Paul Young were having themselves some frenzied, passionate sex. Katrina was really effusive in her intro to Young, and for his part, he seemed like he could have won over any of the ladies in the room, so that's how I'll always imagine the evening went. My disclaimer is I have no idea if either of them are married or with someone else, and it's entirely possible that one or both of them was already alone and fast asleep. But several members of Denise's WLIR Facebook group who were staying at the Borgota reported various Paul Young sightings around the pool and in the elevator throughout the day, so I'm sure they were staying at the hotel. And they were both so good that I like to reward them by seeing them together in my mind's eye, sharing a smooth glass of champagne, then stripping down and pleasuring one another until they both fell apart into an exhausted but restorative sleep.

But enough of my X-rated fantasies. The English Beat (or simply The Beat for any of you who might be reading this from across the pond) were up next. As I mentioned, I saw them last fall, and they are a smoking hot band. Denise likes them a little better than I do, as she's more of a ska fan, but when a band is good they're good, and these guys are good. They opened with "Mirror in the Bathroom," which is one of those songs that other people like better than I do, but they still did an excellent version of it. They followed this up with "Tenderness," a song that's technically a cover of a General Public song (but since General Public is really an offshoot of The Beat, it's not really a cover). They did one other song, then closed it out with my favorite English Beat song, "Sooner or Later," which the crowd danced wildly to as they sang along with the chorus. One of my only regrets about the show is that the sets were shorter here than for some of the other shows on the tour, so they didn't get to do their cover of "Tears of a Clown" like they've been doing at some other venues. But you can't have everything. The stuff they did do was certainly excellent. (And at some point later in the evening, King Schascha, the fellow who replaced Ranking Roger as the band's second vocalist, came out into the audience between sets and shook hands and took pictures with whoever wanted, which was really nice).

After another quick set change, there they were, the legendary Men Without Hats. Lead singer Ivan Doroschuk came out in a sparkling shirt that would have attracted favorable attention from Liberace, and announced that Men Without Hats would now perform their hit single, "Pop Goes the World," their second most popular song. They proceeded to do just that, as Doroschuk bounced back and forth across the stage. I've always liked that song personally, so it was a treat to see them do it live. Next came a lesser known song called "Where Do the Boys Go?," which mostly served to whet the crowd's appetite for the big closer. And as Doroschuk began spelling, "S-S-S-S-A-A-A-A-F-F-F-F ..." the crowd went wild, an interdimensional portal opened up to all of our forgotten youths, and the whole room danced and swayed to "The Safety Dance". It was one of those perfect moments you rarely get during a concert, and everything I'd hoped for.

After the set, everyone sat down and caught their breath, and I commented to Denise that everyone could probably relax and just mellow out now for Howard Jones. As I said, I don't much remember Jones' set from Jones Beach in the '90s. I do remember his set from the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in the '80s, one of my favorite concerts I ever went to. On that night, he played between Martha and the Muffins (or M+M, as they were billing themselves as at that time) and the headliners Eurythmics. All three acts were tremendous that night, and I remember that Jones played as a solo artist, except that he had a mime with him who acted out and danced to his music. I also remember that there were parts of the music which Jones had preprogrammed, so at times he came out from behind his keyboards and danced with the mime. And I especially remember that it rained on and off throughout the evening, and that it was one of those weird shows where Denise and I were both at the same show at the same time, although we didn't yet know one another. And I feel like I remember her -- I think that she and her friends sitting right in front of me. (We had another show like a year or so later, where we both saw The Fixx and The Moody Blues at Radio City Music Hall).

Anyway, Jones surprised me Friday night by coming out with a full band. As the nominal headliner of the evening, he was the only artist who got to play a full set (although again, it was a slightly shorter set than he's been playing at other venues). And there really wasn't much of anything "relaxed" about it at all.

I confess that at the beginning, maybe because I was still recovering from "Safety Dance," I wasn't fully into it. The second song of the set was one I wasn't at all familiar with, and the blue and yellow lights that were flashing into the crowd during the song felt like an assault on my eyes. But about midway through the set, when he did "Everlasting Love", I found myself singing along. And from there on in, it was all gold, as he tore through some of my favorites like "Life in One Day," "What Is Love?" and "New Song" (which he explained was certainly no longer aptly titled). By this time, I was totally won over as he went into his closer, "Things Can Only Get Better". But then he threw us another curve and upped the ante, following this with a newly arranged techno reprise of the same song, and ending the night on a particularly high note.

I found myself singing "What Is Love" softly to myself as I filed out with the rest of the happy crowd.

So, many kudos to whoever had the idea for this tour, and for all six of the performers. (And Katrina and Paul, I just hope you two crazy kids are using protection.) I love my new music, but let's face it -- sometimes, it can be really fun to relive part of your past, at least for one night.

Speaking of which, my next album review will be of a criminally underrated album by perhaps the greatest rock band of all time -- The Who! Plus, I'll have a review of The Gateway Playhouse's Little Shop of Horrors. And still on the schedule, he's known as the King of Jewish Punk -- Steve Lieberman, the one and only Gangsta Rabbi!