I’ll confess that I’m a man whose taste in music is readily apparent. If you have new wave tunes to play, particularly from 1976-86, I’m going to show up and listen to them. That said, a number of incredible legacy new wave bands happened to travel through the DC metro area over the past year, and I took the opportunity to review them for our humble blog.
That said, a number of younger bands definitely broke through and seized my attention, most notably Canada’s Operators, who were the most exciting new band I’ve seen in some time. As with Operators, many of the best performances I witnessed in 2016 came from bands whose leaders are among the Masters of Synthpop, and so I have dedicated a postscript of really great synthpop shows that may have “missed” the top 10 but otherwise deserve a lot of applause.
Check out my top 10 list of concerts I saw for Parklife DC. (Click on the concert slugline to revisit the full review.)
When David Bowie passed away on Jan. 10, Woody Woodmansey — Bowie’s drummer in the Spider of Mars — and others already had a show planned at the Birchmere only days later. That show turned into an incredible tribute to the life and legend of Bowie, as not only was Woody present but longtime Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti was on bass for the show, which consisted of a performance of the entire album The Man Who Sold the World along with other Bowie selections from his early glam rock phase with Glenn Gregory on vocals in a collective called Holy Holy.
Holy Holy were instrumental in lifting my spirits from a place of loss to a place of celebration. Thanks to Woody and Tony and company, I let go of sadness and embraced the music, which continues to endure. Tony and Woody solemnly took the stage before the show started to explain that they considered canceling their remaining North American shows when Mr. Bowie passed. But as musicians, they were compelled to play the music to honor him. We were glad they did.
Charismatic, feminine, and bold, Jehnny Beth led her group of lady post-punks in Savages through 18 triumphant songs of soaring, blistering, and occasionally wry declarations of life, love, longing, lament, and laughs (even be they occasionally spiteful).
As amazing is their debut album Silence Yourself, Savages have accomplished a rare feat with a better follow-up in Adore Life. And Savages are nothing short of the best live band of the year, a result of carefully measured songwriting and finely honed performance.
You can watch this specific concert by Savages in its entirety on YouTube, thanks to NPR Music:
Observers of Duran Duran, as well as the band itself, have often cited its primary inspirations as English glam band Roxy Music and New York disco funksters Chic. It is of course then absolutely meta that Nile Rodgers, the artistic mastermind behind Chic, opened for the band on its latest tour, The Paper Gods Tour, undertaken in celebration of the 14th album by the UK trendsetters.
Somewhere in the core of Duran Duran is a restlessness, a yearning for artistic expression that never stops. The songs like perennial concert favorites “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “Rio” — both performed in April — endure because they were smartly conceived on solid music foundations straddling two worlds of synthpop and R&B, glam and disco.
The band’s unrelenting optimism and passion were on display as they played songs like “Notorious” and “Pressure Off” alongside their friend and mentor Nile.
Dan Boeckner of Operators brought his band to DC9 on the heels of their debut album Blue Wave. The new wave quartet were absolutely thrilling to watch live in a sold-out show at DC9.
Operators performed a stellar live show in part because they have boatloads of talent and charisma. Everyone in the room pressed as far forward to the stage in earnest anticipation as to what would come next from the synthpop band.
As Dan sings from the front of the stage, dancing with a tremendous energy, synthesizer player Devojka focuses intently on impressive synthesizer rig at the rear of the stage. Dan apparently recruited the beautiful, mysterious Devojka (yes, she goes by one name) from her own solo projects to form Operators. And herein lies the crux of why this show was so freakin’ amazing: Dan and Devojka share a dedication to live performance on the synthesizer. They were the best new band I have seen live in roughly three years — no joke.
Ocean Rain, the fourth studio album by Echo & The Bunnymen in 1984, figured prominently into the September set by the band at the 9:30 Club as an overly crowded house clamored for every little bit of cool they could suck out of Ian McCulloch, much as he sucked down cigarettes from in front of the drum kit right on stage. Ian and his studious compatriot Will Sergeant, who focused intently on his guitar the entire show, obliged the overly sold-out house by generating the coolest damn sound, which wafted into the heads and hearts of their patrons.
Stunningly, Ian and the band treated DC to a second encore at the very end of the show, when they returned to the stage to harvest the dulcet tones of “Ocean Rain,” the song. Ian sounded incredible. Friends joked that they were wondering if he were dubbed because he sounded so perfect.
Belinda Carlisle, Jane Wiedlin, Charlotte Caffey, and Gina Schock have come to the Warner Theatre to say farewell. The Go-Go’s played in DC as a stop on their final tour, which they are cheekily calling “Going, Going, Gone.”
Watching The Go-Go’s is like watching poetry in motion as the ladies are well coordinated after all of these years. They each appear to have an instinctive feel for what the other is doing, and so for example, they pause just one beat as they harmonize together in the chorus of a popular song to ensure they are in unison. Other times, Belinda, dancing up a storm in her signature punk rock/faux tribal manner, passes the beat off to Jane or Charlotte and her bandmates jam up a storm on their guitars.
They’ve got the beat, indeed.
Chvrches closed out their touring for their sophomore album, Every Open Eye, with two shows at DC’s Echostage in October. But before they hit DC, they performed a show that was a bit more intimate at Ram’s Head Live! in Baltimore.
Lauren Mayberry and bandmates Iain Cook (synthesizers, guitar, bass, vocals) and Martin Doherty (synthesizers, samplers, vocals) have an easy chemistry that tie them together. And that uplifting, dynamic synthpop generated by the two gents goes so well with Lauren’s pleasant, earnest voice.
This exciting band promises to return with a third album soon, and I for one cannot wait!
It took me a while, but I finally saw Squeeze, and for an old new waver like myself, witnessing founders Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford in action is nothing short of a revelation.
The most recent Squeeze roster came together from Glenn’s touring band, known as The Fluffers, and consists of a magnetic and talented group of musicians, including keyboardist Stephen Large, drummer Simon Hanson, and bassist Lucy Shaw.
This iteration of Squeeze is so inspired, it’s almost like Glenn and Chris placed a phone call to themselves from 1985 to 2007 with precise instructions as to how a great band from their time should sound and look when they assembled the group anew for its latest round. The encore brought down the house, particularly with its closing numbers of “Black Coffee in Bed” and “Take Me I’m Yours,” a longtime personal favorite Squeeze song. Squeeze departed the stage to thunderous, sustained, and well-deserved applause.
Boy George sounds amazing! Much has been made about how his voice has changed since the glory days of Culture Club — it’s throatier, deeper, and more bluesy — but damn he sounded good on Sunday night when closing out the band’s 38-date US tour. I’ve seen George twice previously in recent times, and even I was unprepared for the heights he could reach, after obviously taking good care of his voice over the past couple of years.
In fact, George, bassist Mikey Craig, drummer Jon Moss, and guitarist and keyboardist Roy Hay all are obviously at a professional peak as evidenced by their rousing performance. Culture Club clearly are back, and hopefully here to stay! The four Culture Clubbers played at the height of their abilities, easily coaxing the full house at Strathmore out of their seats and onto their feet with their mix of new wave, reggae, and soul music.
Jessica Louise Dye has a sultry voice well suited to the ’60s vibe radiated by the band High Waisted. She sounds fresh yet acclimated to her surroundings — which makes her ideally suited for surf rock, and the band’s loose, smart sound.
Playing guitar while she sings, Jess brings a lot of energy to the stage but at the same time she fits like an interlocking block with her bandmates — drummer Jono Bernstein, guitarist Steven Nielsen and bassist Jeremy Hansen.
High Waisted brought their infectious energy to the Dead Kennedy Center, a DIY basement space near the Atlas District in DC, and the quartet completely charmed a very crowded house with a batch of songs from their debut full-length, On Ludlow.
OMD @ Wolf Trap — 6/15/16
Visiting the Filene Center at Wolf Trap at the invitation of Barenaked Ladies, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark absolutely thrilled with 11 quintessential songs from their catalog.
OMD pulsed and waved their way through some fantastic new wave staples, opening with the familiar chords of “Enola Gay” and closing on their very first single “Electricity.”
Andy McCluskey bounded around the stage like a man possessed, quite savoring this opportunity to refresh OMD in the minds of thousands of admirers at once. As Andy told me in an interview, OMD readily joined the Barenaked Ladies tour to play in front of more Americans in more diverse locations than they normally would be able to do in their own US headlining tours.
So although the band are working on new material, nominally for an album release in 2017, they stuck to powerful, proven favorites. And it was glorious. (Read also our exclusive interview with Andy.)
Postscript: The Year of the Masters of Synthpop
Although these specific concerts didn’t make my “top 10” list, 2016 was definitely a year where the Masters of Synthpop reasserted themselves. Like OMD, Operators, and others above, these bands brought the synth to stage in amazing shows.
Gary Numan totally owned Moogfest in Durham, North Carolina, with three spectacular shows, each dedicated to one of his classic albums, starting with his first night on May 19. (Speaking of Moogfest, the synthesizer-inspired music festival, the beautiful Gwenno also played selections from her debut solo album in a memorable show on May 21.)
Howard Jones showed up with OMD and Barenaked Ladies at Wolf Trap then returned for his own terrific solo show at the Hamilton on Sept. 3, sporting a keytar and sounding great.
Midge Ure made it back to Bethesda Blues and Jazz for a second year in a row on Oct. 4, absolutely astonishing with his powerful voice and passionate performance. (Read our recent interview with Midge as well!)
The clever gents of SURVIVE brought an array of analog synths to U Street Music Hall on Oct. 28 on the heels of their success with the score to Netflix show Stranger Things.
The Pet Shop Boys absolutely thrilled with a proper show that was high on talent and light on gimmicks in support of their new album at the Warner Theatre on Nov. 11.
Peter Hook brought power and respect to New Order’s catalog in a show with his band The Light at the Howard Theatre on Nov. 23.
The Sounds recorded an awesome new song “Thrill” then came around to play it and mark the 10th anniversary of their breakthrough album, Dying to Say This to You, in an energetic show at the 9:30 Club on Nov. 28 with their amazing frontwoman Maja Ivarsson and versatile synthplayer Jesper Anderberg.
On Dec. 12, Dragonette returned to U Street Music Hall, and reminded me that Dan Kurtz is among the most capable and impressive synthesizer players of contemporary times.
Here’s to a new crop of shows, and more new bands, in 2017 and beyond!