With most of their music being made on inanimate machines, synthpop acts face a challenge come tour time: how to marry technology to visible motion and visceral emotion.
The Hercules and Love Affair of two years ago successfully hung flesh on digital bones by incorporating live drums, percussion, bass, horns and vocals into their show. For the tour which wrapped at Echoplex last night, however, they favored the time-honored house music format of rather faceless knob-twiddling blokes at the back (main man Andy Butler and fellow DJ Mark Pistel) and vivacious vocalists up front (long-time Butler collaborator Kim Ann Foxman and relative newbies Shaun Wright and Aerea Negrot). Whether this was artistic instinct or recession-necessary down-sizing, it only partially paid off.
Things started shakily, with some sour harmonies (judging by the persistent hand-signals to engineers the result of poor monitors) and unsure glances between the singers. But Hercules and Love Affair dug in.
The vocals suddenly leapt in clarity, the twenty-years-ago light show came to life, and the energy slowly snowballed. H&LA's bullying Studio 54 basslines and triumphant pseudo-brass had feet moving almost to the back bar, while its vocal trio worked the near-capacity crowd to arms-aloft effect.
Yet the machines prevailed, as Hercules and Love Affair's humans didn't quite have the charisma (or pipes) to blow the lid off the place. Wright — all Winnie Mandela in head wrap and caftan — vogued with increasing verve; the Adam Lambert-esque Negrot shimmied out of his hot pants; and Foxman bounced birdlike beneath her mushroom 'do like some OMD refugee.
But while Wright and Negrot ably traded-off on Butler's most popular creation, “Blind”, they couldn't match Antony Hegarty's staggering studio-version performance, and Foxman seemed out-muscled by the gizmos on songs like “Athene” (also from H&LA's eponymous 2008 debut). Plus, they simply missed the effortless glamour of former touring vocalist Nomi Ruiz.
Hercules and Love Affair competently delivered New York post-disco's bouncy sequencers and get-down beat boxes to the Echoplex, and “Blind” reminded that Butler is capable of memorable melodies and hit-home lyrics to boot. Even their most raise-da-roof passages tingled with a distinctive heartache, yet they filled the room with rare, inclusive goodwill. The new songs hinted that H&LA's next album will rely more on grooves than tunes, but last night's almost universal, sweaty enthusiasm suggested that their fans barely care.