Given that Peter Murphy suffered a heart attack in August, there was much speculation about how well the Bauhaus frontman would be able to sing and perform with his old band at the Hollywood Palladium on Monday night, November 4.
The fact that Bauhaus were playing at all was somewhat astonishing. The English post-punk quartet had last performed together in Portugal in August 2006 before they reunited — seemingly out of the blue and without much explanation — at the Palladium on Sunday, November 3, for the first of three concerts at the Hollywood theater (the third show is scheduled for Sunday, December 1). Such mystery was fitting for the elusive and shadowy group who — apart from Lina Lecaro’s recent cover story in L.A. Weekly — apparently aren’t doing any press about their latest reunion.
The recording of Bauhaus’ 2008 comeback album, Go Away White, was reportedly so problematic that the group didn’t even bother to tour to promote its release and instead announced at the time that the group were finished. Murphy, guitarist Daniel Ash, bassist David J and drummer Kevin Haskins busied themselves instead with other projects over the last 13 years. Murphy continued with his solo career, while Ash and Kevin Haskins formed a new band, Poptone, with Haskins’ daughter Diva Dompé. (Haskins’ other daughter, Lola Dompé, plays drums in the local underground band Automatic, who opened the Palladium shows.)
For a long time, there was something of a separation of church and state in these various pursuits. Murphy’s concerts were dominated by material from his extensive solo career, although he would generally deign to add two or three Bauhaus songs to the mix. Since Bauhaus broke up for the first time in 1983, Ash and Haskins have been fairly prolific, composing new songs with Tones on Tail and — joined by David J — with Love and Rockets. However, Poptone’s focus has been more nostalgic as the trio have covered Bauhaus classics alongside songs from their other projects. Meanwhile, David J reunited with Murphy last year on the latter’s solo tour when the duo performed Bauhaus’ 1980 debut album, In the Flat Field, in its entirety at a series of concerts.
Such a retro-minded focus would have been heresy in the past. Bauhaus played only three L.A. shows in its early-’80s heyday — at the Roxy in West Hollywood from December 12-14, 1982, when their sets of mostly original songs included a surprise cover, The Strangeloves’ “Night Time” — seven months before breaking up in July 1983. In the ensuing decades, the group insisted that they would never reunite, that what Bauhaus created during its original five-year run was too special to be duplicated. That all changed in July 1998, when Murphy, Ash, David J and Haskins reunited at the Hollywood Athletic Club for a stunning concert that was followed by two similarly thrilling performances at the Hollywood Palladium. Bauhaus made an appearance at Coachella in 2005, which led to more concerts, including a tour with Nine Inch Nails, before the band fell apart again following the recording of Go Away White.
It’s still not clear what prompted this latest reunion. Are these pricey Hollywood Palladium shows merely a cash grab? Or did Murphy’s recent heart attack give him a new perspective on life and inspire him to get together with his formerly alienated bandmates while there was still time? Such questions of motivation didn’t really matter once the lights went down at the Palladium on Monday night as Bauhaus kicked into the first song of the set, their sordid and leering remake of John Cale’s “Rosegarden Funeral of Sores.”
Wielding his silver-tipped black cane like a sword as he stood spotlighted in front of the PA speakers, Murphy appeared a little stiff and wan at first. Dressed in black, the singer looked pale — but what else is new? — but there were fitful signs of life emerging from the seedy murkiness of sound, with Ash using his whammy bar to launch spiraling sounds that mimicked the flight paths of crashing flying saucers. Ash’s mini-symphony of feedback and noise led into the next song, “Double Dare,” but the mix was muddy and booming — a longtime problem at the Palladium (even after its 2008 renovation), which was originally designed in 1940 for unamplified jazz combos instead of loud, convulsive post-punk saboteurs like Bauhaus.
Murphy moved to a platform behind drummer Haskins and extended his arms grandly as if he were being crucified while his shadow flickered against the dark curtain behind him during “In the Flat Field.” As Ash dug out creepy sounds from his guitar that skittered and rolled like metallic gumballs along the edges of the galaxy, Murphy let loose his majestic baritone with impressive strength, the first indication of the evening that he still retained much of his notorious vocal power. Just months after his heart attack, Murphy’s singing wasn’t always as forceful on Monday, and his striking stage poses were relatively restrained compared to his more manic early performances as well as the 1998 comeback shows, but he was nonetheless a properly foreboding presence in the eye of the deepening and widening hurricane stirred up by Ash and the two Haskins brothers, David J and Kevin.
On “A God in an Alcove,” Murphy brandished a golden crown far above his head, invoking and reclaiming his own godlike persona, which had been seriously tarnished when the singer was arrested after he was involved in a hit-and-run accident in Glendale in 2013 that left another driver injured. Wearing a glittery black jacket that sprouted black feathers and sporting a black Mohawk, Ash showed a bit of glam style when he played sax on the next song, “In Fear of Fear.” Ash switched back to guitar on “Spy in the Cab,” with his heavy chords framing Murphy’s angriest emoting so far of the evening as the singer stared intently into the rafters of the Palladium.
The energy level picked up considerably on “Terror Couple Killed Colonel,” although things subsided again amid a squall of mic feedback and Ash’s chunky chords on “Swing the Heartache.” For much of the night, the sound mix varied from clear to muddy, seemingly from song to song. The sold-out crowd — most of whom were dressed, like the band, in de rigueur shades of black — came to life again when Murphy picked up a melodica and unspooled the dreamy melodies of “She’s in Parties” (the only song performed on Monday from Bauhaus’ 1983 album, Burning From the Inside) and interacted with the rest of the group by hammering away on percussion.
Refreshingly, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” came midset instead of as a predictable encore. Although the morbid eulogy is by far Bauhaus’ best-known song, it was just one of several highlights of the night, as Ash scratched together eerie junkyard noises on guitar and David J plucked his momentous descending bass line (David J’s dub-like bass propelled several other songs Monday night with impressively haunting grooves). Strangely, Murphy was able to get the crowd to sing along at one point on “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” a jarring contrast on such a defiantly non-poppy anti-anthem. Despite another muddled mix, Murphy was in strong voice on “The Man With the X-Ray Eyes,” a relative rarity that the band had played for the first time since 1982 at the Sunday concert. Some of the crowd began dancing when “Kick in the Eye” followed with increasing energy.
Murphy draped himself across his mic stand as if he were a scarecrow pulled along by Ash’s driving riff on “Stigmata Martyr.” Next, Ash picked up a 12-string acoustic guitar to carve out the lush opening melody of “Silent Hedges” with an elegantly somber grandeur. “Silent Hedges” was followed by “The Passion of Lovers,” another song that gave Murphy’s voice plenty of room to soar. “The Passion of Lovers” wasn’t performed on Sunday night, although the setlists on Sunday and Monday were otherwise similar (“The Man With the X-Ray Eyes” and “Kick in the Eye” were played in a slightly different order each night).
The set closed with an exciting version of “Dark Entries,” with Murphy barking out rapid-fire lyrics amid strobe-lit shadows while Ash ripped out the song’s ultra-sinister punk riff. After a long wait, the lazy audience bestirred itself to finally demand an encore, and Ash stood alone onstage to deliver the opening of “The Three Shadows, Part II,” a track that Bauhaus performed live for the first time since 1983 at the Sunday concert. Murphy re-emerged onstage in a sparkling black jacket and at one point threw down his mic stand with dramatic showiness. The duo’s intimate version was markedly different than the original recording, and the stripped-down rendition was a darkly beautiful interlude amid all the sound and fury still to come.
The next surprise of the evening was a cover of Iggy Pop’s “Sister Midnight,” which Bauhaus had debuted the previous night. “Sister Midnight” was a good choice, with Murphy — now wearing a bright blue velvet hat — intoning low and moodily against Ash’s skuzzy chords and David J and Haskins’ locked-down industrial-cabaret groove. The set closed with a double shot of other covers. T. Rex’s “Telegram Sam” was off-rhythm at first and felt sluggish overall, whereas David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” exploded with radiant guitar chords and Murphy’s assured singing. Murphy, who hadn’t uttered a word to the band or audience all evening, finally spoke up as the band was departing the stage. “Thank you!,” he shouted. “Do you remember Danny, Kevin and David? Good night!” And with that, Bauhaus slipped away into the shadows one more time.