Concert Review – The Retro Futura tour in Las Vegas
You can dance if you want to, you can leave your friends behind – or on this sweltering summer Saturday in Las Vegas, you can bring your friends along.
As it does almost every summer, Retro Futura rounds up a handful of MTV’s brightest New Wave acts and heads out across America delivering a sugary rush of nostalgia to aging fans of the era. When this year’s package tour was announced, Paul Young and Men Without Hats jumped off a poster full of familiar names like English Beat and Howard Jones. The first, and one of the only, vinyl albums I bought as a kid was the Hats’ Rhythm of Youth. A chance to hear “Safety Dance” live? Please, take my money!
Package tours are a mixed blessing. You get to hear a lot of popular singles but if you really dig an artist, you’re left wanting more. Given the realities of today’s music business, though, package tours might be the only answer. From Def Leppard/Poison/Tesla to Counting Crows/Matchbox 20, the summer of 2017 has been all about package tours. The night before Retro Futura, I caught Tears For Fears and Hall & Oates; an odd pairing that I’m still trying to figure out. However, Tears For Fears were a fitting, and excellent, start to a weekend of artists at the forefront of the second British Invasion – an invasion that came via MTV.
Kicking off Retro Futura was Katrina (without the Waves), who made the most of her ten minutes. I’m sure the timelines are difficult to manage on a package tour with six artists, but three songs was unfair. Sounding as good as she did when we were all walking on sunshine, Katrina delivered a great start to the night before handing off the band to Paul Young. While he only had one major hit in America, his career certainly warrants more than a 12 minute slot. Sounding a little rougher than he used to, his soulfulness remains intact and an abbreviated “Every Time You Go Away” was a disappointment. Hopefully, he’ll work his way deeper into the rotation on next summer’s tour.
Modern English were up next after a lengthy delay due to some technical concerns, at least that’s what it looked like with a guitarist struggling to get a mic turned on. The band appeared tense and frustrated and the set suffered. Of all the bands on Retro Futura, Modern English are the true one-hit wonders. “I Melt With You” is like the gold standard of one-off hits and is unquestionably among the defining songs of the 1980s. Committing the cardinal sin of nostalgia package tours, the band unveiled songs from their new album while the audience waited politely.
Luckily, English Beat arrived soon after and the ska party was on. Keeping the set tightly packed with singles like “Save It For Later” and “Mirror In the Bathroom”, the band’s energy brought the crowd to their feet. Having seen them five times now (on various tour packages), this was their strongest performance in years. Rather than disrupt the party, they mentioned a new album and then played the older material so well that I’m looking forward to the new album.
These days, Men Without Hats is down to frontman Ivan Doroschuk, as his brothers and other bandmates faded away over the years. Backed by a guitarist and two synth players, Ivan stormed the stage with purpose. Few bands have stimulated more nostalgia over the years. The insane Tim Pope-directed video for “Safety Dance” remains one of the most loved videos of the era and continues to fascinate many of us who were too young to do anything but watch MTV during the early 80s. Recreating the video on Google Maps? Check. A Facebook group who successfully searched for the crazy blonde in the video (spoiler: she’s a highly respected editor for a major magazine)? Check. All the attention on “Safety Dance” obscures the rest of the band’s work which is some of the most interesting synth-pop of the era. Ivan’s 2012 album Love in the Age of War brought Men Without Hats into the new century and sounded just as fresh as they did when they first emerged from Canada. So how did “Safety Dance” sound live? Totally, like, awesome.
Even as the headliner, synth-pop pioneer Howard Jones is afforded far too little stage time. Having added a guitarist and an electronic percussionist to his recent touring line-up, he sounded ready to headline his own tour as hit singles came one after another. In 1985, my father took me to see him in Miami during the Dream into Action tour and despite the technical difficulties that evening (the power actually went out!), I was fascinated by how he made electronic music feel organic and human. All these years later, he still manages to pull that off on songs like “No One Is To Blame” and “New Song” which are full of hope and positivity. In many ways, HoJo was the antithesis to the punk scene that was collapsing in England just as he started playing the bars and clubs around High Wycombe, UK. Instead of the dark post-punk that became so important in the late 70s, Jones went in a different direction and hearing the crowd sing along with every song seems to validate his individuality as an artist.
Always ahead of the curve with technology and electronic dance music, Jones remains active as an artist and the tour’s arrangements reflect his love of the current EDM scene especially on “Things Can Only Get Better” which became a hit for Cedric Gervais a few years ago. Judging by the reaction of the crowd and even my wife (who grew up in the same tiny English village as Howard, go figure), mixing the EDM beats into the classic hits worked well and the parking lot morphed into a dance floor as Retro Futura wrapped up another successful night in Las Vegas.
ALL PHOTOS BY THE AUTHOR