Saturday, June 8, 2019

All Hail the Silence, Men Without Hats, Howard Jones

I've seen Howard Jones live four times in the last three years, and six times overall. You'd think this would make me a huge Howard Jones fan, but ironically, not really. I like him. I like his music. And in fact, the first time I saw him was as part of one of my favorite concerts of all time (playing with Martha and the Muffins and Eurythmics at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in the '80s). But really, I'm more of a casual fan. I saw him three years ago in Atlantic City as part of a six-band show (that also included Men Without Hats). I saw him at the Paramount the following year with Denise and Rich Da Drummer, and that was the night we had a problem with some belligerent drunks sitting behind us. (That Denise is such a trouble maker, heh heh.) I saw him again at the Boulton Center a few months later. He played solo, and it was an intimate, non-synthesizer show, with Rachael Sage as an opener. (I bought that ticket primarily because the drunken d-heads had spoiled the one at the Paramount.) But he's not one of my very favorite artists. What he is is an enjoyable performer who works hard at doing something a little different every time you see him, and who usually also plays with others artists that I like or whom I'm interested in seeing. (But if I could somehow trade at least one of those shows for a Thomas Dolby show, who I've never seen live, I would in a heartbeat.)

This time, when Denise mentioned that he was playing here this summer with Men Without Hats, I didn't plan to see him. I figured I'd seen him a bunch lately, I'd seen Men Without Hats too, and sometimes, I just want to spend my ticket money on seeing artists I haven't seen perform before.

But then, I started reading about All Hail the Silence. I learned they were a very '80s-sounding modern duo, and that they were protege's of Vince Clark (as are Reed & Caroline, whose album I liked so much last year.) Then I bought their new album.

Let me tell you about the All Hail the Silence album. It's one of those albums like Led Zeppelin IV, by which I mean that nobody really knows what it's called. The cover doesn't have a title on it, just one of the double-dagger symbols. So some places use the symbols to refer to it, some call it Daggers, and some simply call it All Hail the Silence. But whatever you call it, it's great. It's a double album. I have it on CD, and the first disc in particular is outstanding, particularly if you're an '80s fan. Some of it is reminiscent of Depeche Mode, there's maybe a little Kraftwerk and a little Erasure in there. I loved it from the first listen, and Denise did too. (I knew she would.) Denise usually posts my write-ups to her WLIR Facebook friends, so I'm talking to you guys now -- pick up a copy of this album. It will definitely be right up your alley. (I liked Reed & Caroline a lot, but I know a lot of you guys thought they were kind of weird. You won't have that issue here. The style is very new wave dance-pop.)

By the time I heard the album, and decided I wanted to see these guys live, Denise had already bought a ticket to meet up with her friends and see Howard Jones and MWH in the city. But I knew it wouldn't be a tough sell to get her to see HoJo at the Paramount as well, so I went ahead and bought some tickets.

So basically, what I was saying in this whole long-winded intro is that for us, at least, it was All Hail the Silence that caused us to attend this show. (Not that having Howard Jones and MWH on the bill hurt.)

We left our house at 6:30PM, and arrived in Huntington about an hour later. The last couple of times we've been to this club, we got pretty lucky with the parking. However, this time, not so much. (It was a warm, beautiful Thursday night, and people are starting to get into that summer state of mind.) After driving around for ten or fifteen minutes, we wound up parking on the street behind the theater several long blocks away. It was downhill walking to the venue, but we knew it was going to suck walking back up that hill after the show. (Quick, someone get me a rope and a goat!) This is, and always will be, the Paramount's biggest drawback -- the parking situation bites!

We made it through the metal detectors with relative ease, and headed up to the bathrooms. (Long drive!) Then I grabbed us a couple of waters and a couple of pretzels, and we headed up to our seats. They were in the back section on the right side, where we usually sit, three rows from the top. (Yay! more climbing!)

We then settled in for the show. I saw that the stage was layered with equipment. All Hail the Silence's stuff was up front, Men Without Hat's was behind that, and Howard Jones' band's synths were behind MWH's stuff. I also noticed that unlike the last time I'd seen Howard Jones here, the floor level was filled with rows of folding chairs instead of being set up as an open dance floor.

Before long, the lights went down, and AHTS took the stage. This duo comprised Brian Wayne Transeau (aka, BT), an American musician who is apparently pretty well respected within electronic music circles, and British singer Christian Burns. These guys first got together in 2012, but it seems like they're both wrapped up in other projects, and they only play intermittently together. They don't seem to have released any studio music prior to an EP in 2018. Daggers (2019) is their first full-length album.

They pretty much went right for it, playing their best song "Stand Together" (the first song on the album) first. They then played a full set that included most of the best material on the Daggers album.

These guys sounded great. They had some canned harmonies for Burns to sing along with. They really didn't move around much, but then again, there wasn't a lot of room for them to move in -- BT had to stay with his keyboards, and Burns was surrounded by BT on one side and Men Without Hats' equipment behind them.

When they began playing, the venue was only about a third full, but by then end of their set, it was probably 80% full. In any event, I enjoyed their set a lot, especially "Diamond in the Snow", which is another of my favorite songs on the album. And considering most of the people there really weren't familiar with their songs, I thought they got a pretty good response from the audience.

Next up was Men Without Hats. Now the last time I saw them, as part of the 2017 Retro Futura Tour, they only played four songs, and two of them were "Safety Dance". Tonight, they played a full set. They played as a 5-piece, which included two female keyboard players (one of whom was covering the bass notes) and a drummer. Lead singer Ivan Doroschuk wore an understated (yeah, right) sequined shirt, and danced about the stage -- well, "like an imbecile". (And I say that with love and respect.)

Now I'm an '80s music fan, but I'm also a fan of '70s prog rock, folk music, modern alternative, and lots of stuff in between. I think it's fair to say that my musical taste is wider than Denise's. But the '80's is Denise's area of expertise. I can't even begin to touch on her knowledge of the music of that era. So the truth is, beyond "Safety Dance" and "Pop Goes the World", I really don't know a whole lot of MWH songs. (I recognized a song called "Messiah's Die Young" of theirs that we listened to on the way over in the car, but they didn't play that one.) So I wasn't familiar with the majority of MWH's set. But Denise seemed to know all, or at least most, of it. (She told me later that a lot of the set came from the album that "Safety Dance was on originally, and she had owned that one.) So I was a little lost for part of their set.

I did hear a song called "I Like" that I ... well, liked. And I recognized an ABBA cover they threw in of the song "S.O.S." (which is actually in the ABBA musical, Mamma Mia!). And I enjoyed "Pop Goes the World", but I was a little distracted during it. (I'll tell you about that in a minute.) But beyond that, I was a little out of my element. I enjoyed them OK, but really, I liked the AHTS set more. The crowd seemed split. Some people seemed to be like me, only familiar with a couple of the songs. Others were more like Denise. There were probably more of the latter type of person there than the former. So overall, the crowd response was pretty good throughout. (I'll admit, I was also a little distracted during the set when my son texted asking what time we expected to be home. Usually, he only asks this when we're on the way home, 'cause he's hoping we'll pick up food. But tonight, he asked halfway through the second set. And he was home with my car and my car keys, allegedly so he could drive his friend home. So I pictured him cruising without permission all over Suffolk County while Mom and Dad were blissfully unaware at the concert).

Anyway, let's face it -- no matter how good the rest of their set is, for MWH, it's all about "Safety Dance". Really, any sort of sober analysis would tell you it's a stupid effing song. But the damned thing is just so much fun! So of course, they closed with "Safety Dance", and got a deservedly great response from the crowd.

After MWH left the stage, the crew cleared off their equipment. What was left were three spots at the back of the stage. Two contained brightly lit synthesizers, and the third had some guitar equipment (with the bright lights on the floor.) They also set a smaller keyboard up in front and to the side of the stage. And there was also something that I assume was a controller module of some kind on the same side as, and behind, the smaller keyboard.

Now, this was the first show on the American leg of the Transform tour, in support of Howard Jones' new Transform album. Jones and his band had played last Saturday in England, then flown to the US for this Thursday's (tonight's) show. And after an interminable amount of time between sets, I became aware that several crew members were huddled around the synth in the back at the far side of the stage. Sometimes they'd press a key, but they obviously didn't like what they were hearing over their headphones. (Or they weren't hearing anything.) Sometimes, one of them would walk over and press a key on the keyboard in the middle for comparison. But it was that other synth that was the main problem. I don't know if something got damaged on the flight over from England, or somebody kicked a plug out after soundcheck, but they were clearly having major problems with that one particular synthesizer.

I was in a pretty mellow mood, and as I said, I'd really come there to see All Hail the Silence. So as far as I was concerned, they could have let MWH come out, play "Safety Dance" again, and then call it a night. Probably the rest of the crowd would have been less OK with this, though.

Eventually, Jones came out to begin the show. He started on the smaller keyboard at the side of the stage (which was set for a piano sound throughout the night), and began playing a slightly disjointed version of one of his most beautiful songs, "Hide and Seek". I wasn't sure if this had been the plan all along, or this was an improvisation because of the equipment problem. (It's kind of a strange song to start a set with, but they were opening with this song a lot in Europe, so maybe it was the plan all along.)

So here are my thoughts about the Howard Jones show. Let me say ahead of time that it's going to sound like I didn't enjoy the show, which isn't the case. But I had complaints ("No! Not you Rich! You're usually so stoic.") I also had some observations. Here they are:

1. The sound was a little muddy all night. It wasn't the worst I've heard, and it wasn't too bad for the music. But when any of the musicians spoke throughout the night, I couldn't understand them very well. And because I'm hard of hearing, I checked in with Denise, who agreed with my assessment.

2. The light show was very aggressive, to the point where it was an annoyance. The lights were pointed right into the crowd for a good part of the night. I don't know know if they blinded the crowd on the dance floor, but they were an assault on the senses in our section. Again, it wasn't just me. I saw the couple in front of me shielding their eyes, and they got and moved (or left) after a couple of songs. Whoever designed the light show should be placed in stocks and assaulted with custard pies.

3. What is it about Howard Jones and drunks? A larger portion of the crowd than you'd expect was pretty liquored up, to the point where you had several kind of annoying drunks at the bar in the back who think it's a great idea to emit those loud, ear-splitting whistles when they really liked something. And during the Men Without Hats set, in the middle of "Pop Goes the World", some well-lubricated middle-aged women who was walking down the stairs with a drink in each hand suddenly lurched violently three steps to her right into the laps of the surprised couple three seats in (the ones who later left when the light show started.) There were also two water buffaloes disguised as men in the balcony VIP box in the corner who got so excited that they formed a two-man chorus line during the middle of Howard's set, and damned near backwards-danced their fool asses off of balcony. And this after the trouble we had with the belligerent drunks heckling Denise during the last HoJo show at this venue. I expect this at Ozzfest, or maybe a monster trucks show, not at a happy little '80s music show.

4. Jones wasn't in his best voice for most of the night. He wasn't terrible, but he wasn't as on as he usually is. And he was compensating by asking the crowd to sing a lot of the more popular songs. It makes me a little crazy when artists do this. I paid to hear you sing, not the numbnuts sitting behind me. (I'm actually kind of sympathetic. I know it's not possible to be in your best voice every night. But I won't lie either -- it did detract from the show.)

5. They had some weird-ass videos playing behind Jones and the band. They included close-ups of a face making disturbing expressions and some kind of freaky dancing devil-guy.

6. I could be wrong about this, possibly because the equipment problems put it in my head. But there times when the instruments (especially the bass notes) seemed ever-so-slightly out of tune with one another.

Anyway, after that first piano number, Howard's band came out. He had two other musicians with him, a guitar player (who played electric-acoustic when Howard played solo piano), and the other synthesist. For his part, Jones split the night between the smaller piano synth at the side of the stage, and the large synth in the middle of the back of the stage between the guitarist and the other keyboard player. There were also a couple of songs where he danced around while he played a keyboard-guitar.

He played a bunch of stuff from the new album, especially early in the set. Now Denise has had this album out in her car for the last couple of weeks, so I've heard it once or maybe twice in passing while I was out with her. But she's obviously way more familiar with it than I am. My impression so far, though, is that the All the Hail the Silence album is much better. (Although apparently BT from AHTS co-wrote and played on three of the songs on Howard's album.) But that may change when I get to know it better. (It goes into my car rotation tomorrow.) In any event, I found the first part of the set to be a little lackluster. (And when I asked Denise after the show, she agreed with me.)

Part way through the set, though, I thought the band found their bearings, and they took it up to another level. There was a song I hadn't been previously familiar with that I really liked, which I later learned was called "The Human Touch" (from the 2015 Engage album.) And I really liked "Tin Man Song" from the new album. (Although just when the song really got cooking, wouldn't you know, that suspect synthesizer cut out entirely for a verse or so.) And it's always fun to hear old favorites like "Like to Get to Know You Well", "What Is Love" and "New Song".

Overall, the show was definitely worth the price of the tickets, in spite of its imperfections. And my guess is if you're seeing this lineup in the city next week, or part of the contingent going down to Asbury Park in a few weeks, you'll a show that's much cleaner. But if you do go to one of those shows, do me a favor and show my boys from All Hail the Silence some love. They deserve it.