It is baffling to think that British popstar and Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Seal, whose signature single is a ballad (i.e. the timeless classic “Kiss from a Rose”) and a modern pop standard, initially rode the coat-tails of the early 90s burgeoning rave movement before becoming a mainstay in the world of pop music’s elite. His earliest taste of success showcased the potential of collaboration between musicians that owe their artistry to vastly dissimilar musical heritages. Before he quickly climbed the ladder to stardom, Seal played in Funk and Blues bands. “Killer”, his celebrated collaboration with DJ Adam Tinley (aka Adamski) where he was the guest vocalist (he was uncredited by the Official Charts Company in the UK for this song) topped the UK singles charts 32 years ago. This newfound ubiquity and dancefloor diva status helped him score a record deal with ZTT records – owned and co-founded by legendary hit producer and Art Of Noise and The Buggles’ alum Trevor Horn (along with his late wife Jill Sinclair). This business deal also laid the musical foundation of the “sound” of Seal since Trevor Horn also held the reins of production for a few albums – especially the landmark first two albums that continue to eclipse everything else that followed by Seal in the years since. “Trevor struck me, like that kid in school that is really good at jigsaw puzzles” – said Seal in a recent interview on the Sodajerker podcast while describing Trevor’s ability to bring a piece of music to life. Trevor Horn (famous for his work with Pet Shop Boys, ABC, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood) played a pivotal role in meticulously constructing the atmospheric, lush, and ornate soundscape that enveloped the exquisite centerpiece that was the raspy and powerful voice of Seal. This history of Seal’s musical origins and rise to stardom (best captured by his first two albums) is worthy of a celebration – and fortunately, it is the basis of his 30th anniversary world tour. Given that the success of the early Seal albums is as much a reflection of his voice as it was a by-product of the Midas touch of Trevor Horn, it is only fitting that Trevor Horn and The Buggles are the opening act for this 30th anniversary tour (that celebrates Seal’s first two albums). The icing on the cake here is that in addition to being the opening act for Seal, Trevor Horn is also the music director for this tour. Expectations were undoubtedly high, and fortunately, were vastly exceeded.

Promptly at 7:30 pm, a keyboard melody of the The Buggles’ hit single “Video Killed The Radio Star” started playing as hit producer Trevor Horn and his band walked on to stage as The Buggles – the opening act for Seal. It is worth noting that the only original member of this band on stage was Trevor Horn. The band opened with an instrumental followed by a short set which includes songs such as “Elstree”, “The age of Plastic”, a fantastic cover of the Yes hit single “Owner of a Lonely heart” (a song he co-produced with Yes), and finally concluded with The Buggles’ signature hit single “Video Killed The Radio Star”. Some might remember this song as having the first music video that ever aired on MTV USA in August 1981. Rather unsurprisingly, it was met with unrestrained enthusiasm from the audience. In this short set, the audience undoubtedly got a glimpse into what makes the legendary Trevor Horn tick. His world is one in which music sampling and experimentation of sounds is fair game and the end product of what he creates in the studio is meant to weave an imagery in the minds of the users – a process he guided the audience through with the use of visuals on a gigantic screen behind him and the band. Through this set, he managed to showcase both his brilliance and the reason for why he was never tipped to be a front and center popstar. This dichotomy is central to his appeal. The missed opportunity in this setlist stemmed from the exclusion of the fantastic “Astroboy” from the “Age of Plastic” album by The Buggles. Regardless, their set was entertaining.

Soon after Trevor Horn and his band exited the stage, Seal appeared in the most unglamorous way possible acknowledging that his seemingly random appearance on stage was “unconventional”. He explained that he was there to introduce the second opening act of the night – the young New York-based singer-songwriter Zia Victoria. Her music has been described as “ranging from hooky alt-rock to moody bedroom pop”. Her stage setup was incredibly spartan relative to that of The Buggles. Her first two songs revolved solely around an acoustic guitar and her incredibly youthful and pure voice. The energy and passion on her first song was so intense that her guitar string broke towards the end of the song. Yet, Zia was absolutely unfazed and exhibited a sense of humor that led to the crowd cheering enthusiastically for her. Undeterred, she moved on with a second guitar and then switched to a keyboard. Her innocence, sense of gratitude for the moment she was in, and child-like enthusiasm (which made sense given that she is a child) were quite the counterweight to the rest of the evening – which featured two veteran acts. This night was undoubtedly her biggest and a dream come true. She ended her set with a stripped down keyboard-driven cover version of the hit single “Crazy” by Seal. Multiple opening acts can be a real drag for an audience but in this case, both were welcomed with open arms and open hearts – especially since both acts played very short sets.

At roughly around 8:30 pm, Seal’s set began with a fantastic video montage which included his best music video moments, clips from the television show “The Voice”, and compliments to him in pop culture from television hosts and award ceremony presenters. The funniest moment of the montage was actor Michael Cera’s reference to him in a dialogue with the character Fogel (aka McLovin) in the 2007 hit comedy “Superbad” as he chastises him for picking a silly name (McLovin) for his fake ID.

The video montage quickly transitioned into his towering shadow appearing behind the lit-up translucent curtain as the audience screamed in anticipation. He opened with the hit single “Crazy” from his eponymous debut album and that was just the beginning of a hit-heavy evening and an exhilarating trip down memory lane. His band was the opening act and together they recreated the magic of the first two albums with gusto, class, and an artistry that is exceedingly rare these days. More importantly, the relatively up-tempo vibe of the evening was a great reminder of Seal’s musical roots and a not-so-subtle challenge to the broadly perpetrated narrative that his musical domain was limited to the realms of conventional balladry.

Age has not eroded the soul, and power of Seal’s voice. At 60, he exudes a youthfulness and swagger that can fool the audience into believing that they were in an early 90s time capsule. His ability to hold a note is enviable and so is the relative ease with which he indulges his trademark falsetto. His banter with the audience provided great context for the songs that he performed. He did this particularly well for the hit singles “Prayer for the dying” (which he connected to the very recent demise of iconic pop queen Tina Turner who passed away yesterday afternoon at the age of 83), and “Don’t Cry” – a song he wrote in a hotel in New York City after sensing the pain of a friend that appeared to be hiding her emotions with a seemingly deceptive facade and demeanor. In fact, as he introduced “Prayer for the dying”, he referenced Tina Turner without actually naming her and then burst into a timely and spontaneous acapella snippet of her hit single “Private Dancer”.

The finest performances of the evening were rather unexpected. The audience danced away to “The Beginning” (the third single from his eponymous debut album) and collectively provided the fast-paced hand-clap percussion for the fantastic acoustic guitar ending (which was unceremoniously cut from the radio edit of this song) – a moment of sonic unison between everyone on and off the stage. The most sublime moment of the evening was “Violet” (the final single from Seal’s first album). The performance was everything I had imagined it would be as my heart skipped a beat with each swell of the atmospheric synths in the song’s goosebump-inducing intro. Hearts undoubtedly melted as Seal delivered the song’s first line “Ooh I watch you comb your hair in different light” with the prolonged sustenance of the first word of that first line. The exclusion of the spoken-section sample (which features on the studio original of the song) from the movie “The Sicilian” was conspicuous by its absence and it absolutely worked. In an album retrospective of Seal’s debut album, Pitchfork writer Philip Sherburne says the following about “Violet”:

(It is) a melancholy ballad that posits Seal as a kind of surrealist Balearic torch singer. There have been times, locked in its swirl of synth pads, fretless bass, and jazz piano, that I’ve been tempted to declare it the most beautiful piece of music I’ve ever heard. Behind its sentimentality and its simplicity lurks an incredible vastness”.

Now imagine experiencing the above in a live environment. It was mesmerizing to say the least. The sonic bite of the prominent electric guitar sections and percussion on both “Future Love Paradise” and “Love’s Divine” had the effect of the performances of these songs being dramatic improvements over the studio originals. The undeniable emotion in “Don’t Cry” was accentuated by on-screen visuals of grief and vulnerability.

The section of the evening’s performance that is most likely going to be talked about by concert attendees was the one right before the encore. It is no secret that various price points for concert tickets lead to a somewhat asymmetrical concert experience for different sections (wherein tickets are priced differently) of the audience. But Seal’s deviation from the norm took this asymmetry to dizzying levels as he jumped out into the audience and perched himself in roughly the 10th row of the floor seats walking over the chairs in the midst of awestruck fans signing both the synth-stab driven hit single “Killer” and his signature single “Kiss from a Rose”. To anyone on the floor seats area of Beacon Theatre, the performance of the latter will go down as one of life’s most memorable and priceless moments. Very few can say they have been serenaded by Seal signing “Kiss from a rose” at a distance of less than two feet towering over them while occasionally holding their hands. Those of us that were NOT in the front row in the balcony seats area had to either strain our necks to be able to catch a glimpse of Seal or rely on our phone cameras held high above our heads as he sang the song that bestowed upon him his musical god-like status. This was undoubtedly non-ideal for a large swathe of the audience in the Loge and Upper balcony sections. This is unfortunate because Seal sounded fantastic on “Kiss from a Rose”. It is almost like his voice has not aged a day since 1994. That being said, I am pretty sure no one in the floor seats area was complaining. This might have been one of those rare occasions where they truly got the bang for their buck at a concert. This is probably one of my only criticisms of the concert. It did make a great photo-op for both Seal and press photographers though!

The concert’s closer and down-tempo ballad “Love’s Divine” (from Seal’s fourth album titled IV) was an appropriate choice since it marked the resurgence of Seal after the commercial slump of his third album “Human Being”. It also laid the foundation for what he would be known as in the 21st century – a soulful balladeer. This title is a far departure from his musical persona as a relative debutant in the music industry in the early 90s. The ending of the concert is undoubtedly a nod to that repositioning of Seal in the musical mainstream.

Like it is with most concerts, this one had a couple of missed opportunities. Concerts can be powerful avenues to reshape unfair or inaccurate narratives. Seal took on the challenge of pushing back on the “balladeer” narrative with zest and swagger via up-tempo bangers such as “The Beginning”, “Bring it on”, and “Killer” – but he could have gone one step further with the inclusion of “Newborn friend” – one of the few upbeat tracks on his second album. Oddly enough, this song was released as a single before “Kiss from a Rose” saw the light of day as a single. Hence, its exclusion from the setlist is somewhat puzzling. Sharing the stage with Trevor Horn was also an opportunity to let the audience know that the best moments of their collaborative partnership were not solely in the distant past. In fact, there are recent collaborations of theirs that are in the same league (musically speaking) as those career-defining hits of yesteryear are. One noteworthy example is the song “Monascow” from the album “7” (released in 2015). Its inclusion would have seasoned the spirit of nostalgia with a sense of discovery for the audience.

As the evening unfolded, in the midst of the enthusiasm, joy, and excitement, I felt a constant sense of gratitude. At the risk of sounding like an old man yearning for years gone by, my gratitude stemmed from a realization that I came of age at a time when the songs on the setlist were an integral part of the sonic backdrop for life and its defining moments. A shared musical experience with songs such as “Prayer for the dying” and “Kiss from a Rose” also became a basis for community and a cross-generational bridge (which barely exists today) between hardcore music aficionados and casual music fans. This gratitude is bolstered by the fact that artists such as Seal are still around making music and touring despite having written their tickets to a plush retirement over two decades ago. Seal belongs to a generation of artists that married pop music (a genre that is still largely looked upon with more than a hint of condescension) with sky-high artistic aspirations not typically associated with the genre. The evening was a great reminder of what the pop mainstream could be today if only we music listeners demanded more from the curators that enjoy immense power to shape popular opinion as it applies to music. Seal reminded us of what a bonafide class act he is. I can barely wait for his 40th anniversary tour. If it has even half the vitality that this concert did, fans have something precious to look forward to.

STAR RATING: 4.5 out of 5 stars


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