Saturday, January 24, 2015
They didn’t call it the era of excess for nothing. Sexy guys wearing fancy clothes in posh or exotic locales became a music video formula in the '80s, garnering hit records and legions of starry-eyed fans for the acts who it did best — most notably, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, Wham! and Spandau Ballet.
While many of those acts have continued to make music on and off over the past three decades, playing nostalgia gigs or reinventing themselves, London’s Spandau Ballet never did. Personality conflicts and a bitter battle over royalties between songwriter Gary Kemp and the other members saw the group disappear along with the '80s itself. It would be 20 years before the soulful pop pin-ups returned to the stage, and almost 30 until they’d hit a U.S. stage (at last year’s South by Southwest, where a documentary chronicling their career, Soul Boys of the Western World, debuted to much acclaim.)
They did a Jimmy Kimmel gig a few months ago, but the band’s first proper Los Angeles show in three decades did not go unnoticed. It sold out the Wiltern Theatre, and a second night was added.
Saturday, the first of the weekend shows, the “boys” of Ballet had something to prove to L.A., and they did, bestowing their mostly thirty-and-fortysomething fan base with a set that was near perfection sound-wise and as visually appealing as anything they did back in their '80s heyday. And yes, by visually appealing we mean they still look good. Real good.
Singer Tony Hadley is a little bigger and less baby-faced, sax player Steve Norman no longer rocks bleach-blonde locks, and the Kemp brothers Gary and Martin are definitely grayer. But the band’s sex appeal not only remains — it’s kind of heightened.
Spandau can work the whole silver-fox/hot dad deal because they were always about suave seduction, from their suits (which they smartly still wear on stage) to their hair to their sophisticated take on white boy soul. They started out as part of the androgynous new romantic scene, wearing makeup and playing synth-heavy dance rock. But their most powerful work was always shamelessly soul-based, funneled through Britpop bravado and charm.
Unlike the more nuanced sounds of the similarly sensual artists like Roxy Music, David Bowie or even their perceived rivals Duran Duran (who seemed more self-aware), Spandau’s brand of unabashedly romantic pop music can come off a little cheesy at times. To some it was schmaltz even when it was popular, so it was questionable whether it would hold up so many years later.
But on Saturday, they squashed any critical concerns. Hadley’s croon was rich and potent and exact on every song. From the new wavey fun of “To Cut a Long Story Short” and “Chant No. 1” to the joyful bopping of “Communication” and “Lifeline” to the jazzy cool of “Highly Strung” and “Only When You Leave,” the whole band was tight and bright, allowing for each number to shine. If not for Hadley's occasional vocal change-ups and Norman’s gorgeous, extended sax jams on certain numbers (most notably their signature slow jam, “True”), we’d have thought we were listening to the actual recordings of our adolescence.
“True” was obviously the night’s momentous number. It’s a classic in the “true”-est sense of the word, bringing to mind old boyfriends and girlfriends, “slow dances” at proms and weddings, and awkward movie scenes. But it didn’t sound dated or overdone in the least.
Yes, the Wiltern was full of crush-damaged female Spandau fans, but Saturday’s show was entertaining by anyone’s standards. The band debuted a few new numbers that didn’t stand out for us but melded nicely into the set of old gems. Closing out the show with “Gold” was a nice touch too, and fitting, because this is a reunion that definitely has many more golden years to come.