Simply Red and Natalie Imbruglia impress at the O2 arena on the “Big Love” tour
30 years in the music business is far more than artists aspire for today. There does not appear to be a system in place that allows for artists to grow musically over time and slowly permeate into the music buying public’s consciousness. Hence, there is definitely a “wow” feeling when Blue-eyed soul act Simply Red‘s lead singer Mick Hucknall said “let’s go back to 1985” to introduce the hit “Money Too Tight To Mention” as he concluded his hit-heavy performance at the O2 arena in London on December 18. One cannot help but think “Hey it’s 2015. 1985 was 30 years ago”.
The band’s “Big Love” tour commemorates 30 years for Simply Red in the music business. It is a monumental achievement considering that the band is performing at arenas across Europe and South America to highlight this awe-inspiring milestone. “Big Love” is also the title of the band’s new surprise album – which released in the summer of 2015.
Opening acts have never really been a source of excitement for me personally. Hence, to have one of the most criminally under-rated artists of the last decade and a half be the opening act was nothing short of an auditory treat. For those that regularly tune in to our global radio broadcast, they know that the music of Natalie Imbruglia is a regular staple on our station. Contrary to popular belief (at least in the US), this incredibly talented beauty has way more to offer than her signature hit “Torn“. When purchasing tickets for this concert, I could not help but think that I was getting Natalie Imbruglia and Simply Red for the price of a single ticket. Dressed in a full-sleeved black top and black skirt, Ms Imbruglia brought the seductive innocence and raw emotion of the vocal delivery on her studio recordings to the stage with songs such as “Wrong Impression“, “Counting down the days“, “Torn“, and “Shiver“. The innocence even translated to the way she danced on stage. On more than one occasion, the thought crossed my mind that she does not make a convincing 40-year old. She is still an ethereal beauty and brings an exuberance to her performance that people associate with younger starlets. That being said, she does this by being classy as opposed to resorting to overt sexual innuendo. One cannot help but think that she deserves to be a lot bigger than she is. Surely there is room for pop stars like this that excel within their musical realm, have artistic integrity, and don’t feel the need to sound like absolutely everyone else. I personally hope she managed to trigger the curiosity of at least some of the audience members and also managed to lead them down a path of discovery of her impressive back-catalog. The highlights of her set were undoubtedly “Wrong Impression” and “Instant Crush” (a Daft Punk cover and the lead single of her new covers album “Male“). The material from her ill-fated “Come to life” album was conspicuous by its absence. The omission of tracks from that album seemed like an almost deliberate attempt at not acknowledging that part of her legacy. It is a shame since some of her finest material is on that album. Songs such as “Lukas” and “Scars” went a long way in reigniting my interest in Natalie Imbruglia. The inclusion of these tracks would have undoubtedly forced at least some audience members to give that album the chance it never really received. The omission of the “Come to life” album is the only criticism we have to offer of her performance. Everything else was overwhelmingly positive. It definitely helps that she is an ethereal beauty with an impeccable knack to charm. In a nutshell, she was a fantastic appetizer for the sonic feast that was to follow.
Simply Red‘s show began with a quick video recap of lead singer Mick Hucknall and the band over the years. The photos were shown in chronological order – once again reminding the audience how many years had elapsed since the band had their first flirtation with fame in the international musical limelight. What followed soon after deviated heavily from expectations. Instead of starting off the concert on an uptempo note, the band opted to kick off the concert with a series of downtempo tracks. In fact, the opening track represented a stylistic hybrid of sorts. It started off as an acoustic rendition of “Holding back the years” (a US #1 hit for Simply Red) featuring Mick Hucknall on the guitar. The band comfortably transitioned from the acoustic sound to the version on the studio album “Picture Book” after the first chorus. The highlights of this first string of downtempo songs are undoubtedly the two musical gems from their 1989 album “The new flame” – “You’ve got it” and “Enough“. Just like he always did in concerts from the past, lead singer Mick Hucknall referred to “Enough” as a personal favorite and the song he wrote with the great American jazz musician and composer Joe Sample. The visual backdrop for each of these songs featured a mix of photos and videos that made worthy accompaniments to the music being played. More often that not, the videos were live close-ups of the band’s musicians. This worked very well since the string of downtempo songs that the show began with feature quite a few memorable instrumental solo sections. Noteworthy examples include the achingly beautiful saxophone solo in “You’ve got it” and the three separate instrumental sections (saxophone, guitar, piano) on the brilliant “Enough“. The visual element successfully conveys the idea that despite the media’s singular focus on lead singer Mick Hucknall as the band’s face and voice, Simply Red was far more than Mick Hucknall – even though he was the only constant in the band through its various incarnations.
Given the string of downtempo tracks that the concert began with, it was not a surprise that the audience was sitting down on their seats for all of it. The inflection point in the concert was the band’s performance of “Night nurse” (the eighth track of the night) – a reggae-heavy track recorded in Kingston (Jamaica). This also marked the beginning of the audience standing up and participating through the entire length of the concert from that point onward. The hits kept rolling – “Fairground“, “Stars“, “Sunrise” (the relatively muted audience response to this song continues to baffle me), “Come to my aid“, and “Thrill Me“. The band did not take any risks with their setlist and gave the crowd exactly what they wanted. Despite the tour being titled “Big Love” (which is also the name of their new album), only one song from that album made it to the concert setlist. That song was “Shine On” – which in my opinion is far from the best song on the album but it is definitely the best to showcase in a live environment. Other albums that were not highlighted at all during the concert include “Stay“, “Simplified“, and “Love and the Russian winter“. I cannot help but wonder if this has to do with the fact that the band agrees with the broader media that these albums were mere musical footnotes in the context of their musical legacy.
I have always believed that Simply Red‘s genre of music would work infinitely better in a more intimate setting relative to the O2. That being said, through the stunning visuals (which did not seem even remotely repetitive), the band managed to put on a show that truly worked in an arena setting. Being able to hear each instrument and each carefully tailored sound that forms the exquisite sonic fabric that is Simply Red’s music provided an exhilarating high. Age has not eroded Mick Hucknall’s vocal ability. He continues to hit the high notes and has also retained the warmth in his voice that set him apart from his contemporaries and made him one of the finest vocalists to have emerged from the UK in the past few decades. Last but not least, in a world where auto-tune, vocoders, and repetitive electronic dance beats have become integral parts of the modern pop music template, it is great to hear competent musicians playing actual instruments in a pop music context.
We extend Simply Red a heartfelt congratulations on 30 years in the music business and for creating a legacy that has endured.
STAR RATING: 5 out of 5 stars
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