In Soul Boys of the Western World, the new documentary about the rise and fall, and 2009 resurrection, of Spandau Ballet’s long career, one of the band members pointedly says that he had no interest in ever being a “cult figure,” but rather always wanted to be a “pop star.” As a band, Spandau Ballet certainly achieved that goal between 1980 and 1986, when they morphed from the unsigned poster boys for London’s small but influential voguer-than-thou Blitz scene into platinum-album, arena-filling, chart-topping hit makers. What happened afterward is the kind of cautionary tale of bitter band dynamics, personal ambitions, and clashing egos that made the early episodes of VH-1’s Behind the Music such addictive viewing. It is also what makes the Soul Boys documentary, and similarly named world tour, so compelling.
Judging by Spandau Ballet’s exuberant performance and what seemed to be genuine pleasure to be back onstage together at The Warfield in San Francisco on Friday night, January 23, the band members clearly have resolved their differences, and possibly the question of the dispersement of significant royalties that was at the heart of their estrangement from the mid-1990s into the 2000s.
The near-capacity audience came ready to savor the experience, and maybe relive some of their youth: DJ Omar Perez spun a pre-show set of 1980s hits, with tracks such as Tears for Fears’ “Pale Shelter” eliciting a loud whoop from the crowd. At nine o’clock sharp, the lights went down, the heavy red curtains parted to reveal Spandau Ballet on stage, and S’BALLET-MANIA immediately, and loudly, ensued in the theater.
They opened with the new song, and tour title, “Soul Boy,” a potentially risky move that could have been met with impatience from a hit-hungry crowd. Instead, the roar of a reaction was not only for the song — as catchy a tune as they’ve ever written in that blue-eyed British soul-pop style they perfected from their third album on — but also for Spandau Ballet itself.
Judging by the hair, or lack thereof (including the pate of this reviewer), the average age range in the general admission floor area was mid-forties to early fifties; a generation that discovered the band early on in the MTV years, only to have their devotion validated by the mainstream success of the albums True and Parade, not to mention the band’s inclusion in the soundtrack to John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles. But, truth be told, this is when Spandau Ballet lost me. The icy synth-dance tracks and the electro-funk of their first two records resonated more with me than when they ventured into what I then considered to be Roxy Music-lite song stylings. And it also must be noted that the reliving of those past favorites was, sadly, the most disappointing part of an exciting show.
The first seven songs included three new compositions, plus past hits “Highly Strung,” “Only When You Leave,” and “Round and Round.” The performances were winning. At times blistering, even. So much so that my old indifference to latter-day Spandau Ballet compositions was replaced with more than just respect. I was in awe. Tony Hadley’s voice fits him better than ever at this point in his life, and his comfort level shows. His phrasings were sophisticated, sometimes lingering behind the beat, sometimes anticipating it, sounding every bit like the soul or jazz crooners he’s emulated. And when he allowed his voice to soar, no roof could have sealed it in. Steve Norman’s sax rides were likewise unstoppable, often to the point of competing with Hadley’s voice in the mix. The Kemp brothers — Martin on bass and Gary on guitar — were tight and musically stylish without being flashy, and John Keeble’s muscular drumming kept driving it all forward. Things unfortunately faltered, though, midway through the show.
The affable Hadley introduced a medley of songs from the band’s debut, 1981’s Journeys to Glory, by saying, “This is what we sounded like before ‘True,’ back when there were things called records.” This set came immediately after an apparent problem with a monitor had caused Hadley — who seemed bedeviled by that ear bud a good portion of the night — to be off-key and out of synch at the beginning of “Chant No. 1 (I Don’t Need This Pressure On),” another personal favorite, from Diamond, their sophomore album. Having seen the set list, my hopes were high for this part of the night. But the transitions from “Reformation” into “Mandolin” into “Confused” and “The Freeze” were awkward, and I’ll blame it more on opening night than any lack of ability on the part of these musicians to arrange. Thankfully “To Cut a Long Story Short,” also from their debut, got a separate and electrifying treatment.
The last third of the night was devoted to more songs from Parade, a short backtrack to “Instinction” from Diamond, and then the triplets of “Communication,” “Lifeline,” and “True,” during which the crowd’s sensational reactions clearly caught the band by surprise. After encores — including a beautiful rendition of “Through the Barricades” and a euphoric, sing-along “Gold” — the players were as hesitant to leave the stage as the audience was to leave the theater.
This review was heavy on hyperbole, but it felt justified — and the band’s performance earned it. As a publishing entity and media outlet, DINOSAUR is about defying cultural extinction but also about continued creative relevance. Spandau Ballet proved at The Warfield that they are more than just surviving. They’ve evolved over the years, getting better than it seems most people could have predicted, judging by the equally impressed reports from their SXSW appearance last March. Certainly this world tour will elicit more of the same praise.