Daryl Hall and John Oates, Tears for Fears
Sept. 15, 2017
The power of music to evoke the past is a remarkable thing. I was reminded of this during Tears for Fears' sublime set at Staples Center last night, when they broke into a song I thought I didn't recognize called “Change.” As the song glided into its seductive pre-chorus and Curt Smith crooned, “It's all too late,” I was suddenly back in a college dorm room listening for the first time to Tears for Fears' debut album, The Hurting, which like a lot of Americans I had completely missed when it first came out in 1983. I could remember the cinderblock walls and the feel of the nubby dorm room carpeting under my hands as I sat on the floor listening to “Change” for the first time. I even got a clear image in my head of the music video, though God knows where I dredged that up from.
I'm sure thousands of such moments happened in attendees' heads last night, as Tears for Fears and Hall and Oates played every major hit in their respective catalogs. As nostalgia tours go, this one was pretty tough to beat — though the very different approaches each band took to revisiting their past glories was an interesting study in contrasts.
Tears for Fears, who opened the night, took more of a human-jukebox approach to their old songs, playing as close to the originals as possible. This was especially noticeable on the tune they opened the evening with, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” a song that has stayed in such heavy rotation on adult contemporary radio that I've probably pushed a hundred shopping carts down a hundred grocery store aisles to its familiar, chugging backbeat. All 20,000 fans at Staples Center probably knew every snare hit and synth fill of “Everybody Wants,” and the band delivered them almost a little too slavishly — though it was a thrill to hear that Smith's warm, soulful croon hasn't been dimmed by age.
Elsewhere in Tears for Fears' set, their perfectionism served them well — and reminded the more casual fans in attendance that they were always more than just another British new wave band with a fondness for soaring vocals and percussion-heavy arrangements. Though mostly known for their biggest album, 1985's Songs From the Big Chair — and one earlier hit, “Mad World,” thanks mainly to its use in the film Donnie Darko — the group's core duo of vocalist-bassist Smith and vocalist-guitarist Roland Orzabal had a successful run that lasted more than a decade and saw them cycle through a variety of styles, from the soulful synth-pop of their debut to the anthemic pop-rock of Big Chair to the lush psychedelia and sophisti-pop of 1989's The Seeds of Love.
It wasn't their biggest hit, but the song that has emerged over time as the duo's masterpiece is Big Chair's “Head Over Heels,” a perfect piece of new wave pop (with one of the ’80s’ best bass lines) that was easily their set's highlight. The interplay of Orzabal's and Smith's voices, augmented by ace backup singer Carina Round (who is extremely pregnant and apparently will be leaving the band after last night's show to, as Smith joked, “drop that thing”), was just as strong live as it had been in the studio some 30 years ago. In this case, staying faithful to the original was the right move.
Daryl Hall and John Oates wasted no time in demonstrating that they would take a far different approach. The original, synth-heavy arrangement of their 1982 cover of Mike Oldfield's “Family Man” was given a more rocking makeover, with Oates and fellow guitarist Shane Theriot trading licks and Hall belting the chorus with a Memphis soul shouter's gusto. The next song, “Maneater” — from the same album, H2O — was more recognizable but still dressed up with heavier instrumentation that threatened to drown out the track's immediately recognizable backbeat.
Throughout their 90-minute set, Hall, Oates and their stellar six-piece backing band seemed to take particular relish in deconstructing the duo's ’80s hits, dialing back the synths and adding a little swing to rhythm tracks that were, in their original forms, often programmed. Though the approach undoubtedly confused some fans who didn't discover the duo until their MTV-era run, when they embraced new wave and scored many of their biggest hits, it made sense for an act whose roots go back to the early 1970s. Early on, the Philadelphia duo dabbled in everything from Philly soul to prog-rock — the latter of which they revisited last night with their set's most glorious left turn, a spacey jam called “Is It a Star” from their Todd Rundgren–produced 1974 album, War Babies, which sounded less like Hall and Oates and more like a lost Alan Parsons Project track. Though Hall and Oates hits such as “Private Eyes” and “Say It Isn't So” helped define the new wave era, that era never really defined them, which partly accounts for how well their music has aged and how gracefully they rode out that inevitable period when they fell out of fashion.
In fact, the audience last night saved its biggest responses for the duo's pre-’80s classics. When Hall sat down at a baby grand piano and played the opening notes of “Sara Smile,” it was greeted with a delighted roar of recognition (even though those notes on the original came from Oates' guitar). “Rich Girl” and “She's Gone” — the latter of which Hall introduced as the song that launched their career — got similarly warm responses. Even sharing a bill with a classic ’80s act like Tears for Fears, Hall and Oates' appeal still clearly transcends that decade.
The main part of their set culminated in a 12-minute version of “I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)” that transformed the stripped-down soul of the original into a gritty blues-rock jam. The highlight of the song — and maybe the entire set — came via a fiery, extended solo by their colorful longtime sax player, Charles DeChant, who strutted across the stage in a gold suit as his bosses happily vamped on their most famous (and most heavily sampled) groove. As much as Hall and Oates still clearly enjoy playing their hits, you get the sense that they'd be even happier just riffing all night on a series of classic pop and soul covers (indeed, their version of The Righteous Brothers' “You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'” was another highlight).
In the end, though, even Hall and Oates were content to settle into human-jukebox mode, and their fans were more than content to come along for the ride. Their four-song encore, culminating in the irresistible bounce of “You Make My Dreams,” was punchy, airtight, largely free of any jam-session digressions — and left their aging audience filing out of Staples Center at the end of the show with a youthful spring in their steps. Hearing classic songs reinvented by their originators can be a thrill, but when those originators play it straight and let the nostalgia flow freely, it's hard to beat. Last night, Hall and Oates did both, and it was a remarkable thing.
Set lists below.
Tears for Fears:
Everybody Wants to Rule the World
Sowing the Seeds of Love
Advice for the Young at Heart
Everybody Loves a Happy Ending
Creep (Radiohead cover)
Break It Down Again
Head Over Heels / Broken
Daryl Hall and John Oates:
Family Man (Mike Oldfield cover)
Out of Touch
Say It Isn't So
You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' (The Righteous Brothers cover)
One on One
Is It a Star
I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)
Kiss on My List
You Make My Dreams