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The B-52's

B-52'S REVIEWS:

The B-52's and The Human League Live: Woodinville, Wash (September 10, 2011)


The B-52's and The Human League Live: Woodinville, Wash (September 10, 2011)



For the life of me, I have an impossible time figuring out how The Human League could be an opening act for The B-52's. If anything, it should be the other way around. I mean, The Human League started as a pioneering synthesizer-and-drum machine band in the late '70s before coming up with a slew of great singles in the '80s. (“Don't You Want Me,” “The Lebanon,” “(Keep Feeling) Fascination,” “The Things That Dreams Are Made Of,” and—my personal favorite—“Mirror Man”). I mean, I love The B-52's almost as much as I love life, but do songs like “Love Shack” and “Rock Lobster” really compare?

Well, to the massive crowds of the Pacific Northwest, they apparently do! I mean, these guys are quite a draw around these parts. I don't know what it's like anywhere else, but this crowd was quite explosive. I even noticed people in front of the venue holding up cardboard signs trying to buy tickets. This is the fourth concert I've been to at this venue, but that's the first time I've seen that.

I knew the last time The B-52's came to this venue last year touring with Blondie, and it quickly sold out. That year, The B-52's were Blondie's opening act, which instinctively makes more sense to me! However, this year, I made sure to sense the urgency, and I bought the tickets literally within the first minute they were on sale. Even with such effort, I only managed to land tickets in the verrry back row and to the corner of the assigned seating area. However, I felt extremely fortunate to get it! (If I want to spend $400 on wine per year, I can join their VIP club that allows me to buy tickets two days before everyone else does. I've never had a sip of wine in my life, but for the sake of scoring great seats at concerts from my favorite, albeit aging, pop bands, I have a good reason to start.)

At any rate, I have never seen a better opening act than The Human League. Mind you, this isn't like the INXS concert I attended two months ago who was touring with a sort of bastardized version of Berlin. This was the actual trio, that should immediately pop in your mind when you think of The Human League. It consisted of Phil Oakey, the glam singer with a velvety voice, and his two fashionable companions: Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley. (The Human League had other members at different times, but they are the classic trio.) Opening acts are supposed to be lame by design, which explains why their sound on stage wasn't nearly as crispy as The B-52s would prove to be later on. However, they were nevertheless top-class! And as (I hope) we all know, they had plenty of well-loved songs in their catalog to fill at least three of the sets they gave that evening.

With that said, they performed a “new” song right at the beginning in which Sulley used an autotuner, which is a new-fangled device that I really don't *get*. I don't see any appeal to them whatsoever. (I'm aware that even Kate Bush used one on The Director's Cut for her remake of “Deeper Understanding.” But that song's about a computer that talks to someone, so at least it kind of makes sense.) These girls—and I mean no offense by this—always had average singing voices, but at least they seemed real. I always figured that was the 'averageness' was the appeal to them: they would counter the more flowery things that Oakey was doing with his voice. ...Perhaps the reason they used an autotune for their new album was just to prove they could still be relevant with the kids? But I can't say I've ever heard that song before that evening, and I'm pretty sure the kids didn't either. So, please don't use an autotuner!

Fortunately, after that, it would be good old-fashioned, unadulterated singing from then on out, flaws and everything. (Flaws in live concerts are essential, you know!) Oakey—who takes lead vocals for most of the songs—was moving left and right across the stage while the two ladies pretty much stayed in one spot dancing and singing. Sulley—the blonde—came across as far more extroverted than Catherall, as she fluidly wiggled her hips while twisting her long and thin arms up, around, and across her body. Catherall was pretty much doing the same thing, but had less fluidity to her movement.

I was stuck by how friendly Oakey seemed up there. I suppose, watching how rigid and emotionless he came across in those music videos, it never occurred to me that he was probably a very nice guy in real life. (That 'emotionless' bit was a pretty common trend in the '80s... and you can accuse The Human League of many things, but being non-trendy was not one of them.) There was a crowd of what must've been HUGE Human League fans dancing off to the sides of the stage, and Oakey would frequently look off to them, sort of cock his head to the side, and wave at them during the performance.

He had a sense of humor, too. At one point during the show, he said that he and the drummer Rob Barton did the most work out of the band, which was met with a scrunched face and a protest of “Oooh!!” from Sulley and a sort of giggle and rolling-of-the-eyes from Catherall. I also had to notice that Oakey could never get his decades right. He introduced one of his songs (“Human,” I'm pretty sure) by saying it was from 1996. After getting a few weirded-out looks from the ladies, he corrected that by saying “1986... 1976... whatever.” At one point toward the end of their set, he stated that The Human League started doing synthesizer music in 1987. He never got around to correcting that one, but Wikipedia says it started in 1977, so that must've been another 10-year miss.

Speaking of early Human League, they did perform one song from their first album. That kind of shocked me, because that's a weird album. I listened to it once in 2004, thought it was kind of interesting, but I've never listened to it again. The girls weren't part of the band then, so they took that time to go back-stage to change costumes. But wow! That song was absolutely electrifying! I have no idea what it was, but they had a guitar player out there playing all sorts of NOISE while Oakey was very energetically singing a monotonous melody. ...If you've seen The Human League in concert, you've probably noted that the band's only guitarist plays a synthesizer most of the time. But what a guitar player! I'm happy they stuck with their hits most of the time, but just that once, it was great they pulled out something from those “critically acclaimed” beginnings.

Oh, and they had two keytar players, and one of them was the guitarist I just spoke of. Sometimes the two were going at it at the same time with those keytars. I have somewhat mixed emotions about the instrument. Usually, I think they stink. But thinking about it more open-mindedly, if a keyboardist is only going to play a synth-bass rhythm, then why should he be inhibited from getting up there and dancing around a bit and thus getting more in the spirit? Usually the keyboardists had their instruments down on a flat table, which at least shows they had some sense of moderation about using the keytar, and they also probably didn't want such showman shenanigans keeping them from doing the fancier finger-work that some of their songs required.

I wondered if they were going to perform “Mirror Man” at all. When that song was released as a single in 1983, I couldn't even talk, and so I have no idea how popular it was. However, considering the hefty cheers they got from the crowd when that song popped up, it must have been was quite well-known. Really, most of the songs they performed that evening got rather hefty responses from the crowd, and they got even heftier as the night went on. In my experience, people remain seated during opening acts apart from the typical, isolated scatterings of one-or-two weirdos. However, by the end of the set, nearly everyone had stood up. After all, their last song was “Don't You Want Me,” which topped the charts all around the world, including the USA. The B-52's, as popular as they are, never even achieved that. (Their biggest hit, “Love Shack,” made it to #3.)

But anyway, even if I think The Human League should have been a top-billing act in America, as far as I was concerned, I got off pretty well in the deal! It was a massive $80 per ticket (including Ticketmaster's gluttonous portion), but I got to see two headline-worthy acts for the deal. As a matter of fact, The Human League very much are headliners everywhere else. Just not America. (At the end of their set, Oakey thanked The B-52's for bringing them along, since they state they would never have been able to tour America otherwise. ...Ugh, America!)

Well, Americans are very kind to their own, which is a big reason The B-52's have been able to continue to thrive here when The Human League could not. The B-52's never did particularly well on the charts, but they were an especially popular act in the “underground subculture,” which I have to assume is larger in the Seattle area than it is most places. This underground subculture isn't too weird considering it consists mostly of nerds—like older versions of myself—who enjoy little more than buying interesting records. And, yup, they're the ones who came this show in droves. You might have noticed I haven't described a terrible amount of people at this concert, which is something I've done for the last six concert reviews I've written. Firstly, I liked these bands more than most so I wasn't paying too close attention to the people around me. But secondly, everyone that I noticed came off like friendly, well-rounded, non-obnoxious people. It's like I could invite most of them over to my house for a barbecue. Well, not that I will. (When I would sit in the back at this venue, there were always people talking. I wasn't close to the stage, but close enough where I couldn't hear anyone talk anyway!)

In between the two acts, there was a break of about 40 minutes when a healthy troupe of Oompa-Loompas were setting up the stage and checking the instruments. I was way too lax on my no-liquids-before-a-show policy before attending, so I had that opportunity to satisfy those resultant, natural urges. This is an outdoor venue, and they had a couple rows of about 50 portable toilets there. That seemed excessive to me at first, but then I noticed that the lines to them during that intermission extended roughly a third of the entire venue. When I joined the queue, the people who were in front of me were literally in the hundreds. I had wondered if I was going to make it back in time. Fortunately for me and my bladder, that line moved very quickly! I also found the experience perversely amusing of being the next one “up to bat” and darting my eyes across the vast rows of toilet waiting for the next door to swing open. My ability to successfully spot this—and in the dark, to boot—was undoubtedly enhanced by those long hours I used to play Duck Hunt when I was a kid. Thanks, Nintendo.

The B-52's missed their chance for a grand entrance when I noticed someone with firey read hair off to the side of the stage a few minutes before the show started. Three guesses? But still, seeing them run up on the stage was something that I'll keep in my record-books for quite a long time! Yes, you already probably know what I saw: There was what was undoubtedly Cindy Wilson, Kate Pierson, and Fred Schneider, dancing and carrying-on on the stage. Of course, there was also Keith Strickland on the guitar, but he didn't seem to like being the center of attention so much. Their drummer, Sterling Campbell, isn't an official member of the band, but I had actually seen him before touring with David Bowie. Since I've seen Bowie twice, that means I've seen Campbell perform three times in concert, which is the most I've ever seen anyone.

I've been having this very peculiar mental-block lately where I seem to always be forgetting what songs bands open with at concerts even though I'm certain that I've recognized them. You'd think I'd be able to remember the first song the most clearly, since I'm recording in my memory banks. At the David Bowie concerts I attended in 2004, I was able to recall everything he did in order! There were also a few songs played that evening that I couldn't quite place. Those were probably songs from the albums Whammy! and Bouncing Off Satellites, which I'm basically unfamiliar with. They also performed a few songs from their 2008 release Funplex, but they always made sure to introduce them in as such a way as if to say “Hey, listen guys! You might not know this one! But we think you'll like it just as much as anything we do!” Well, “Funplex” is a pretty fun song. How couldn't it be when the word “Fun” is in the title?

I might have had trouble recalling the first song, but I do remember that the second song was “Private Idaho.” (I also always seem to remember the second songs. So weird.) I was really thrilled that Kate Pierson—now almost 65 (!)—could still pull off those youthful “whooping” noises throughout that song. Also, some people might say that she's probably too old to still be wearing those Barbarella outfits. But... I don't know... I thought she still looked pretty smoking! I have to take note that my grandmother was a year younger than her when I was born, but heck: If you still have that frame when you're that old, then I say show it off. I've seen some old videos of these guys performing in the '80s, and it should be no surprise to you that they've lost a lot of that energy. However, they could still dance around on stage with all the charisma they need. Shneider—the renown speak-singer—doesn't do it quite as well as he used to, but it continues to be just as bizarre and entertaining as ever. He also likes to power-walk stiffly around the stage, and he also waved things in the air daintily and with amazing fluid-like motions to the funky rhythms.

One of their favorite songs to sing in concert is “Give Me Back My Man” from Wild Planet probably because it's the chance for Wilson to individually shine during the shows. Understandably, Wilson becomes more or less the second-fiddle during their frequent duets. As far as that song goes, I had never recognized it as one of my favorites. However, it was a lot of fun to see in concert. (The studio version does have a really tight texture, and it makes a pretty great listen. Wow! I feel like I'm enrolled in B-52's appreciation 101.) “Mesopotamia” has kind of an interesting, sort of airy melody sung by Pierson... but of course the reason 99% of people like it is for its funky dance beat. Well, 99% of B-52's songs have a dance beat, so that should come to no surprise.

“Party Out of Bounds,” another song from Wild Planet was one of the highlights of the evening, since it included some very fun play-acting between Pierson and Schneider. (I think they were fighting over crackers, or something.) “Hot Pants Explosion” is a song that I was completely unaware that I liked. I did listen to Good Stuff a few times, but I think I wrote it off as sort of pale. But how the hell am I to dislike a song with lines like “You burned a hole in my mind / When I saw your cute behind / Wearin' those hot pants” or “Supercalihalitosis ooo that outfit's the absolute mostest.” or “Yeah, I never saw nothing so doggone hot / You belong in Ripley's Believe it or Not” or “I see the Army the Waves and the Wacks yeah / Marchin' down the railroad tracks in hot pants” or the closing line “Hot pants, they're getting' so hot / We might have to take them off”. All of this, of course, in the flamboyant, wildly campy voice of Fred Schneider. If you don't find that funny, then I guess you can go back to that Tolstoy novel you put down to read this.

Well, I guess if I'm going to critique their songs, I should just go ahead and review their albums! In due time, my friends. Without a doubt, the concert was fun, because their songs were fun. There's nothing serious about this band whatsoever, and I don't want there to be. After all, there's so much seriousness going on in the world right now (particularly as I happened to attend this on the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11), and it's nice that there is at least one “intelligent” band in the world who only wants to write goofy music inspired mostly by '50s sci-fi movies and celebrate life in the process.

If I was to complain about one thing about The B-52's concert, it would be that they didn't perform enough songs from their debut album. However, that's a selfish thing for me to complain about, because I know that album FAAARRRR more than I know any of their others. However, when they ended their set with the expected rousing rendition of “Love Shack,” they hadn't gotten around to playing anything from that first album I know so well. Not even “Rock Lobster.” But that's gotta be one of those songs that would cause a mad roar from the crowd if they didn't play it, right?

Surely enough, they came back for the encore and gave us their debut album double-header, “Planet Claire” and “Rock Lobster,” and both of those songs were absolutely explosive. I think it was pretty clear to everyone in the audience that they absolutely saved the best for last. “Planet Claire” starts almost as a crazed instrumental before Pierson comes in with that extra-terrestrial melody, which requires her to absolutely WAIL. Of course she didn't do it as well as she did on the album, but it still sounded pretty darn good. (Somebody who attended the same show as I did and was standing next to the stage was kind enough to capture a video of this exact performance I saw and posted it on YouTube. Give it a go! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VozVyXsid2k. ...Is Schneider shooting people with a ray gun? There's something I missed. I noticed that he was waving a shiny thing in the air, but I didn't notice it was a ray gun. ...If these guys come again next year, I'm sitting up front. My tea-total ways are through.)

But it is both an objective and subjective universal truth held by everyone on Earth as well as those beyond Earth that “Rock Lobster” is the greatest B-52's song ever. Even if you don't agree with that, you must agree with that. (It's best if you try not to think about what I just typed.) And man! These guys went full-steam-ahead with it, too. Not only giving us an explosive version of that infectious groove and singing as wildly as they could, but Pierson and Wilson even went through with that crazy sea-creature roll call. Of course that requires a lot of hiccuping and screaming and it's not even close to being exactly like it was on the album, but they did do it. That's probably even the funniest song they've ever done, and I can tell you it was 100 times funnier to see them do in person. It even prompted a young lady to rush the stage, and it took about five security guards to tackle her. I sort of missed the beginning of that stage-run, but I think Wilson had to run out of the way.

Well, the show ended promptly at 10 (or, as my phone claimed, 9:59), but these tunes were going through my head for the rest of the night. And they will continue to go through my mind for the rest of my life! As I'm writing this, these guys still tour fairly extensively. If you ever get the chance to see them, don't pass it up.


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All reviews are written by Michael Lawrence.