Date: April 13, 2023

Venue: Town Hall (New York City)

Tour: Do You Remember?

For the longest time, it appeared that the name Darren Hayes had been one that was associated exclusively with yesteryear. Darren‘s return to the limelight after a hiatus of over a decade was far from inevitable. His surprise appearance in an episode of the Instagram live stream “Crooner Sessions” by Take That frontman Gary Barlow to perform the early 2000s hit “I Knew I Loved You” was the first glimmer of hope. The performance confirmed that his angelic vocals were NOT a thing of the past. The second sign of an imminent return was the super addictive electronic ballad “Cold to me” by Louis La Roche featuring Darren Hayes. The reception to this song revealed a latent appetite among fans for new music from him. Finally, he released “Let’s Try Being In Love” – the lead single from his fifth album “Homosexual” – a title that was also a slur hurled at him in his younger years as a resident of Slacks Creek (Brisbane – Australia). “Homosexual” was written and produced exclusively by Darren Hayes. The album appears to be an avenue for a catharsis from a painful past in which he was severely ridiculed for his sexuality – something he had not fully come to terms with until adulthood and a heterosexual marriage. The song “Music Video” from the album is emblematic of his experience grappling with his sexuality as a schoolkid (which probably explains Darren’s use of a pitch modulation technique called Varispeed to sound like a child through the entire length of the song). The album is also the catalyst for Darren’s return to live touring. This year also marks a little over 25 years since the rise to prominence of Savage Garden – the successful duo that Darren Hayes was the lead singer of. It is also the only connective tissue linking Darren Hayes to the consciousness of the large swathe of the American music-listening public that was blissfully unaware of his solo career. The narrative around Darren Hayes as a solo artist is dramatically different overseas. For those interested in understanding how Darren Hayes went from superstardom in the US to relative obscurity, read on. If not, feel free to skip ahead to the core of this concert review by clicking HERE.

As the 90s progressed, it appeared that the smaller group of curators of pop music on American pop music radio airwaves were becoming progressively more geocentric and insular from the broader pop music landscape. As a result, the proportion of non-American artists and bands cracking the Billboard top 40 singles had plummeted despite many of these acts enjoying immense chart success in the rest of the world‘s major music markets. It was an event of serendipity that a radio DJ stumbled across a sonic earworm titled “I Want You” while on a trip to Australia and brought this song back with him to the US and played it on one of the radio stations whose programming was not controlled by the centralized programming authority of conglomerate-owned terrestrial radio. The song caught the ear of TV host Rosie O’Donnell. She laid the foundation for the song’s growing popularity and before the band knew it, they were signed to a major record deal with Columbia records in the US as Savage Garden. The alt-rock sound of “I want you” with catchy lyrics made the band an easy fit on American radio at the time. Little did people now that this song was a stylistic red herring not only for the band‘s debut album but also for Darren Hayes (the band’s lead singer) and one of the finest vocalists of the last 25 years. “I want you” was not a showcase of Darren’s vocal pipes but what followed emphasized this attribute of his and this quickly led to Savage Garden scoring their first US #1 hit with “Truly Madly Deeply” (the third single from the band’s eponymous debut album). Darren Hayes and bandmate Daniel Jones had officially arrived and permeated through the seemingly impenetrable wall that is the geocentric but highly lucrative US music scene. Despite “Animal Song” (the lead single from the band’s follow-up album “Affirmation”) being a commercial flop in the US, they managed to quickly rescue a sinking ship with “I Knew I Loved You” (featuring actress Kirsten Dunst in the song’s music video) – their second number US #1 hit. With this song, they effectively shielded themselves from the all-too-common sophomore slump phenomenon.

Despite the success of “Affirmation”, the band‘s demise was imminent with Daniel Jones’ increasing dissatisfaction with life in the band. When this happened, what at first was a mutual understanding between the bandmates quickly morphed into an acrimonious split. This was also the beginning of the divergence between how Darren Hayes was perceived in the US versus the rest of the world as he embarked on a solo career with his debut album “Spin”. Between becoming a victim of fickle curators at terrestrial radio in the US and of a record label (especially its US umbrella) that found the challenge of marketing a gay male artist out of the realm of their ability or interest, Darren Hayes was in a no-win situation from the beginning of his solo journey. As a result, despite cracking the top 10 in the UK singles chart with lead single “Insatiable”, the song only reached #77 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. It was a lackluster showing that he never truly bounced back from in the US despite several stellar moments on the debut album and “Spin” (which benefited immensely from songwriting input from songwriting/production legends Rick Nowels and Walter Afanasieff).

His sophomore album “The Tension And The Spark” became a multi-dimensional catalyst for Darren’s reinvention. Under the tutelage of producer Robert Conley, Darren Hayes started to make his foray into production – a skill that became a defining one for his fifth album “Homosexual”). The lyrics on the album were revealing of his sexuality. He effectively became the architect of his exit from a major label record deal and the beginning of his journey as an independent artist. The albums “This Delicate thing we’ve made” and “Secret Codes And Battleships” (Darren did have a major label distribution deal for this album) followed. His most recent offering “Homosexual” was the catalyst for his return to the stage to showcase the best of himself.

Fans that look beyond the musical horizons of the narrow confines of the US mainstream must have recognized the opening act Welsh-born Rod Thomas – who performs under the moniker “Bright Light Bright Light”. In a 2016 review of his third album titled “Choreography”, Gwilym Mumford from The Guardian said the following about it: “Inspired by the sheen and optimism of movies of the 1980s, it’s a lavish and maximalist affair, full of wistful, heartfelt pop songs”. This description is apt for the bulk of Bright Light Bright Light’s catalog that spans 6 full-length albums. Noteworthy highlights from his back-catalog include “Symmetry of Two Hearts”, “Cry at Films” (the mid-tempo version), and “Arms Of Another”. His music is a regular staple on our 24/7 global radio broadcast. Hence, for me, this concert undoubtedly felt like a “2 for the price of one” deal. Needless to say, he did justice to his set as the opening act for Darren Hayes. He appeared on stage with two male dancers with a visually camp aesthetic and quipped “as you can see, we are pretty gay”. The finest moment of his set is when he was alone on stage delivering a stunning improvement over the original of the super-addictive “Cry at Films” (apparently also a favorite Darren Hayes from Bright Light Bright Light’s catalog). His ear-candy closer “Symmetry of two hearts” was apt but could have benefited from a larger group of dancers. That’s just how much of a banger it is. The most noteworthy omission from his set was “Arms of another” ( a gem that should NOT be missed).

For those expecting Darren Hayes to put on a minimalist and subdued performance, they were undoubtedly in for a stunning surprise. When talking about the creation of his most recent album “Homosexual”, he indicated that visuals guided the themes and the vibe of the album. Darren appears to have brought that ethic to his concert. The first hint of this was his stage setup – one that included a lit-up staircase with elaborate curtains (frequently used as visual props to aid the eye-popping choreography of the performance). This was not a typical concert. It was a glimpse into Darren’s sanctuary – a haven of escapism that shielded him from the domestic abuse of his father (which his mother became the unfortunate object of), the often cruel slurs hurled at him for his sexuality (something he had not wrapped his head around yet), the painful ending of a heterosexual marriage once he came to terms with the reality of his homosexuality, and a music industry that simply wasn’t ready for his raw and unapologetic authenticity. In this world, he was sexually liberated, fearless in the display of his vulnerability and emotional self, free from the shackles of a conventional (and quite conservative) surrounding (both in a personal and professional context), free to embrace his authentic self, and to be a perennial fountain of youth as he danced like it was his last day on the planet. This is a world in which his idols, the golden trifecta of pop music (Michael Jackson, Madonna, and George Michael) reigns supreme and is omnipresent. This is also a world in which an untamed creative spirit is allowed to run wild.

One of the first noticeable elements of this concert was a collection of manifestations of reverence for his musical heroes Michael Jackson, Madonna, and George Michael. His up-tempo rendition of “Insatiable” sampled Patrice Rushen’s “Forget me nots” and the outro of this performance was the repeated refrain “gotta get up to get down” from the global hit single “Fast Love” by international superstar George Michael. Darren used a clever mini-cover of “True Blue” by Madonna to transition into an achingly beautiful performance of his second #1 hit single with Savage Garden titled “I knew I loved you”. While talking about the collapse of his heterosexual marriage, the keyboard player on stage was playing an apt accompaniment in the form of chords of the song “Power of Goodbye” from the “Ray Of Light” album by Madonna. Darren choked up as he spoke about the abuse of his mother by his violent father after a heart-wrenching performance of “Two beds and a coffee machine” (from the second Savage Garden album titled “Affirmation”). This was hands down one of the most somber but beautiful moments of the evening. It reminded me of Michael Jackson and his share of tearful moments on stage challenging some of the notions of conventional masculinity in the years during which he rose to prominence.

The second noteworthy element of the concert was a distinct division of the concert into Part 1 and Part 2. The catalog from his Savage Garden years dominated Part 1. The introduction to Part 2 was done via a cheeky dramatization of Darren and his backup singer/dancer Madeleine Coghlan having a phone call wondering how the audience would feel about him featuring songs from his new album “Homosexual” despite calling this tour a “hits” tour. The humor and self awareness made for a potent combination and set the tone for Part 2- the energy level of which was multiple notches higher than that of Part 1. It featured Darren Hayes dancing like a man that had just been liberated. He shared a dynamite on-stage chemistry with backup singer/dancer Madeleine. Darren’s energy and abilities as a dancer are beyond enviable. He had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand as he commandeered the stage and his band.

No review is complete without honing in on the highlights of the concert. The purity of the guitar solo in an already stellar performance of “To the moon and back” (from Savage Garden’s eponymous debut album) raised the euphoria meter substantially. “I knew I loved you” benefited from a creative intro (a mini-cover of Madonna’s “True Blue”) along with some vocal gymnastics towards the end of the song that are not there in the song’s studio original. Time has not undermined the power of his angelic falsetto. To say that “All You Pretty things” (hands down one of the finest singles of 2022 and one of the most poptastic tracks Darren Hayes has ever recorded) was one of the finest moments of the concert would be an understatement – despite the fact that the second verse of the song was skipped altogether. “Two Beds and a Coffee Machine” was a reminder that everything sounds better when delivered via the emotional (often accentuated by a touch of innocence) vocals of Darren Hayes. The painful context of the song (Darren Hayes had to get permission from his mother to write and record this song for inclusion in Savage Garden’s “Affirmation” album because of its intensely personal, shocking, and shameful premise). One cannot help but wonder if the up-tempo performance of Darren Hayes’ “Insatiable” was a thinly veiled acknowledgment that the song’s studio original should NOT have been recorded as a downtempo track. I have always believed that an artist should not lead an album with a ballad or a down-tempo song. “Insatiable” was the lead single for Darren’s solo album “Spin” and was undoubtedly going to fare well from a singles chart perspective on the strength of the goodwill that Darren Hayes had nurtured as the frontman of Savage Garden. That being said, there is always the lingering question of whether or not Darren Hayes should have led with a sound that was distinct from that of his biggest hits with Savage Garden (both of which were ballads). Sampling among rap artists around the time of the release of “Spin” was commonplace. Perhaps, releasing a single version of “Insatiable” that sampled Patrice Rushen’s “Forget me nots” (as performed in this concert) may have given Darren an injection of momentum after the Savage Garden years in the way that a ballad could not.

Performing “I want you” after the encore seemed apt in light of the fact that this song was the gateway to but not the highlight of Darren’s artistry. It became the vehicle that propelled Savage Garden to a major record deal in the US as well as to global ubiquity.

Do You Remember?” (the title of the tour) offers more than a hint that Darren’s approach to the concert setlist was rooted in a desire to largely take concert attendees on a trip down nostalgia lane. In an interview from last year, Darren mentioned that he attended a Kate Bush concert expecting her to emphasize new material and was pleasantly surprised by the extent to which her most popular album “Hounds Of Love” was showcased in her concert setlist. It reminded him that music is married to moments in people’s lives. In a sense, those commercially successful songs belonged to the people. The setlist planning had to factor that in. As a result, Savage Garden’s catalog accounted for a little over half the setlist – leaving very little room to highlight his musical evolution over the course of his five solo albums. Depending on where a fan falls in the casual-to-ardent spectrum, this could be a good thing or a not-so-great thing. While I remember the exact moment that I first heard and felt electrified by Savage Garden’s hit single “To the moon and back”, I would be lying if I said I was a fan until I randomly stumbled on to a relatively obscure b-side called “Random Blinking Light” (the b-side to the single “Darkness” from Darren’s sophomore album “The Tension And the Spark”). This puts me closer to the ardent end of the fan spectrum – which means most of my favorite songs by Darren Hayes were conspicuous by their absence on this setlist. It is likely that this is an experience shared by only a tiny minority of the fans at the concert. Beggars cannot be choosers and hence a non-ideal setlist by Darren Hayes is FAR superior to the prospect of NOT seeing Darren Hayes perform live.

The greatest pop music concerts are those that are a showcase of unbridled artistry, vocal competency, the fearlessness to challenge convention and ageism, and an abundance of elements of surprise – all of which are buoyed by a compelling narrative and rich back-story. Darren Hayes’ concert at Town Hall in New York City was all of this and more. This show was a theatrical spectacle intended for a significantly larger venue. Darren Hayes’ decision to deliver this to fans in intimate venues at reasonable ticket prices just might be one of his greatest acts of altruism. It is also a reason that he is one of the most potent and criminally under-rated pop music brands of the last 25 years. His absence from music stages was the collective loss of pop music aficionados across the planet. I can only hope this tour neutralizes any concerns of the appetite for both his live and studio work. Hopefully this tour unlocks the doors to a new chapter of Darren’s musical story. Darren Hayes is a consummate performer and a musical treasure with one of the most magical vocal pipes of an artist from the last three decades. His place in pop music is worthy of far more reverence than he receives. To the extent that this concert was a catalyst for a rediscovery of Darren’s back-catalog, it was a smashing success. Last, but not least, this was a night to remember.

STAR RATING: 5 out of 5 stars


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