AL STEWART REVIEWS:
INXS and Berlin Live: Woodinville, Wash. July 17, 2011
I am a dork. Do you know of anyone else who's ever paid $65 to go to a concert and was more interested in seeing the opening act than the headliners? (Of course that $65 ended up being rounded up to $80 courtesy of Ticketmaster.) Well? How could I resist? When I was in college, I stayed up late plenty of nights frantically doing homework and studying for tests while I had the sounds of the '80s pop band Berlin pumping in the background. I'm not sure why I attached myself to Berlin of all bands those evenings, but it happened. At this moment in time, I haven't reviewed any of Berlin's albums yet (they didn't have that many), but I'll just tell you right now that I quite like Love Life and Count Three and Pray. I'm slightly less enthused over Pleasure Victim, however, even though that's the album that put Berlin on the map. (Except for that “Berlin” the Germans put there, I guess.)
I did next-to-no research before attending this concert, and I was a bit taken aback to discover that lead singer Terri Nunn was accompanied by a trio of men who were clearly in their late 30s and early 40s and were dressed as though they hadn't changed since attending a Marilyn Manson concert in 1996. Surely, these guys were children when Berlin had their biggest hits, right? Or have I traveled back in time?
After consulting with my good friend Wikipedia, I learned that Nunn is the only original band member touring around anymore. Such a pity! She had won the rights to tour around under the Berlin banner in 1999, and that wasn't done without a struggle. Oh well—I won't complain about it. For sure, it would have been novel to see more of the original members—especially since Nunn wasn't the primary songwriter—but when it comes down to it, isn't it only the lead singer anyone ever cares about? She might not have written the songs, but she was the one busting her chops trying to wail over those rather intrusively pumping synth-pop tones! I mean, the songwriter for the group (John Crawford) didn't exactly make things easy for her. Also, she was the face of the band, and as you might notice from the album covers, it was a pretty face. Sure, she's aged since then—just a week away from her 50th birthday—but she wasn't any of less of a fox.
Sometimes I feel a little creepy fawning over someone's looks in my reviews, but I got the impression at the concert that Nunn likes people fawning over her. During her expected rendition of “Take My Breath Away,” she got off the stage barefoot and started walking up and down the aisles just to be with everyone. (I guess those eight-inch heels she was wearing got in the way!) I happened to be sitting right at the aisle, and so she got no more than five feet away from me. I got a bit antsy as she headed towards me—I really didn't want to establish eye-contact with her. (Is it just me, or do you get this creepy feeling up your spine when someone walks over to you singing a song? I think they're going to look me straight in the eyes and start singing at me. Brrr!)
The security guards were apparently not briefed that Terri Nunn would take off and start walking amongst the audience; they had a marked look of SHOCK and panic in their eyes. I'd imagine zookeepers would have the same looks on their faces if a three-year-old jumped into a lion's den. Well, people generally left her alone, and she was pretty receptive to those who didn't. Some were following behind her dancing and others tried to talk to her. However, no one distracted her enough to mess up her singing. I suppose it also helped matters that a small army of security guards were also trailing behind her and looked poised to jump anyone who was thinking about getting rambunctious. …Wouldn't it be goofy to get thrown out of a venue during the opening act, though? I mean, all those wine bottles people were guzzling hadn't even been given the chance to get absorbed in their system!
But, yes, if I were a security guard at this place, I wouldn't trust anyone either. I know that middle aged people are supposed to be straitlaced and upstanding citizens in their day-to-day lives, but they're a force to be reckoned with if they have their hearts set on revisiting their teenage years. And that was probably the whole point of going to an INXS/Berlin concert for them. I got my first taste of teenage-remission before the concert when I had to go visit the restroom and I saw a middle-aged couple making out with each other. I mean, they were slobbering over one another in a highly comical fashion. When I got out of the bathroom, they were still going at it. How could I have seen that in real life?
Oh, and one of the sweetest moments of the evening was when I noticed a guy sitting over in the peanut gallery who was trying to give Terri Nunn a dozen roses. Only, the security guards wouldn't let him get near the stage, because he paid $20 less for his ticket than I did. He was an odd looking man, probably about 45 years old, but he already had a kind of a withered, old-man face. He was wearing baggy cargo pants, a ball cap, and he never really stood up straight. Although I'm thinking the reason I never saw him standing up straight was because he was constantly dancing, and his dance was that of a hunched-over gremlin. When Nunn saw him hold up roses to her, she stopped her singing for a few seconds and screamed “Awwww! Let him give me roses!” At that, I guess, the security guards had no choice but to let him in. However, by the time he finally made it to the stage, she'd forgotten about him, leaving him standing there for the remainder of the set, flowers in hand, and staring at her while he continued his gremlin dance. Fortunately for him, and all of us at the show who was fascinated with this spectacle, his quest would finally be fulfilled at the end of the concert when she not only accepted the roses, but she gave him the biggest hug imaginable. I mean her arms were wrapped tightly around his neck as though he were a dear old friend she hadn't seen in 20 years. (I could never imagine doing something like that. But then again, I'm a massive introvert.) As expected, a chorus of “Awwwwws” erupted from the audience. Right afterward, he tossed a yellow envelope onto the stage. I guess he meant to give it to Nunn earlier, but it slipped his mind because he was too wrapped up in that moment. That envelope had some bulk to it. My guess is that was either a demo tape of original songs and he was hoping to collaborate with her on an album, or that was a pile of photographs of him naked. Someone seated behind me thought it was a love letter, but how could it be unless it were a love novella?
Before the concert, Nunn's roadies had handed out wristbands. Right at the end of her set, Nunn suddenly announced to the crowd that anyone with a wristband was allowed to dance up on the stage with her. ...The security guards were already pretty agitated when Nunn unexpectedly started walking up and down the aisles, but they COMPLETELY flipped out at that announcement. They acted with lighting speed to stop people from climbing on the stage, but that wasn't quick enough for one (and only one) gentleman from making it up there. He wore a sleeveless shirt, boots, and a bandana on his head. He had a boyish face and had impressively beefy forearms arms. He was dancing about wildly, pumping devil horn hand signals in the air, and all the while seemingly unfazed over the fact that he looked like a big old dork up there. (Nunn is quite a small person, which made this guy look a bit like Shrek.) Oh man, watching that guy was freaking hilarious. I mean, I was cracking up. Maybe he and his friends were cracking up, too?
Should I tell you about the quality of those Berlin songs? Well, I sure as hell liked them. Nunn could still belt everything out with as much gusto as she did on the albums, if not more so. If you've listened to Berlin albums before, you know they do require a fair deal of belt-i-tude, and so it was nice to hear that she hasn't lost that spunk over the years. Regrettably, she didn't get around to singing my two top-most favorite Berlin songs (“Touch” and “Pleasure Victim”), but I won't say their absence left me gutted or anything. What she did sing was “The Metro,” “Masquerade,” “Sex (I'm A...),” “Dancing in Berlin,” “No More Words,” and maybe some others I'm forgetting about. I guess for people in the audience unfamiliar with those Berlin tunes, she gave us a hearty rendition of “Somebody to Love,” because—apparently—Grace Slick changed her life. I don't know what I think about Grace Slick changing anybody's life (I would think you'd have to join a new age cult for that to take its full effect), but Nunn sounded pretty darn good singing it.
Even though Berlin was essentially a solo act for the original lead singer, the situation was reversed entirely for the headlining act of the evening, INXS. The band consisted only of its original members—all of whom were well into their 50s—with the exception of the the lead singer who was in his 30s. And, wow, this young lead singer was such a spectacle to watch that I had a hard time believing that he was real. He even had a name that sounds like it's from a comic book: J.D. Fortune. When I'm at a live show and sitting as close as I was that night, I usually let my eyes drift evenly across the instrumentalists to watch what what they're doing. However, how could I do that when this rubber-jointed man with seductive eyes was slithering left and right across the stage hogging all my attention? Surely, he interacted with other members of the group. For instance, I would see him putting his arms around various instrumentalists while putting his mouth uncomfortably close to theirs. At one point, the bassist put on a motorcycle helmet (?), and Fortune spent a few seconds drumming on it. (After that point the helmet was removed. I guess he didn't appreciate that!) Fortune also liked playing around with audience members. I saw him mock-flirting with a couple ladies sitting at the side of the stage who probably won those seats in a contest, and I'm sure that sent their hormones racing. (There were plenty of lady-screams behind me, so I guess the females of our species find him quite the ticket.) There was a crowd of people dancing right in front of the stage, all of whom had their hands reached out to him, and if they were in the right spot at the right time, they would get a high-five or—if they were especially lucky—treated to a brief staring contest.
As I was watching this man, I was getting more and more suspicious that he was what inspired Russell Brand to create his character from Get Him to the Greek. I mean, his mannerisms were pretty much dead-on. I took some time to verify those suspicions via an Internet search on my cellphone while I was waiting for the parking lot to clear out after the concert. But, nah, I guess I was wrong. I did learn, however, that Fortune won that front-man position on a reality show, which I suppose is interesting. If INXS were looking for someone with wild-eyed charisma and an unstable personality in their real life (just like the deceased former front-man Michael Hutchence was) and had a good singing voice to boot, then I'd say they found the best lead singer that money could buy.
I did very much enjoy watching the other members of the band, which completely verifies fans' claims that they are an excellent live act. With that said, I was never the hugest fan of INXS' studio albums. I suppose the main reason for that is I have a hard time figuring out if they wanted to be a pop band or if they wanted to be a hard-rock band. They seemed to strive for something between that. There's nothing fundamentally wrong about that, but most bands that do that concentrate too much on being all things to all people. They don't spend enough time developing inspired material. Fortunately, INXS did have one important ace up their sleeve that at least gave them enough material for an excellent Greatest Hits album: They could write hooky riffs. I mean, those hooks are so potent that I recognized most of the songs immediately even though I've only heard some of them three or four times in my life. As I'm writing this, it's been two weeks since the concert, and I can still remember the riffs I heard. I'd say, then, they have staying power.
The song of theirs I've been most familiar with over the years is “Need You Tonight,” which was what I was anticipated hearing out of them the most that evening. I remember that riff was constantly running through my head during the 20-minute drive out there. While that riff is infectious, this brings me to mentioning another problem with INXS: Does anyone remember the vocal melody? Does that song even have a vocal melody to speak of. Oh, the lead singer (both old and new) could sing above those riffs in a snaky and ultra-sexy manner, but I think even the most hardened INXS fan would have to agree that those songs would be nothing without the riffs. That's in contrast to—say—The Rolling Stones whose classic songs not only have great riffs, but they also have great vocal melodies. I mean, when I'm listening to “Jumpin' Jack Flash,” I can't decide if I want to play the riff with my air guitar, or if I want to lip-synch to it! With INXS, I'd have to choose air-guitar every time.
...But what am I doing? I paid $80 for a rock 'n' roll show! I wasn't about to spend the whole time at the show with my arms folded and criticizing—what I think—are the lack of interesting vocal melodies in their catalog! I mean, I was torturing my ear drums for this concert! Should their suffering have been in vain? It was quite bad, too; I was about 20 feet away from the speakers. I mean, I could feel that pulsating bass sound hit me right in the center of my chest. (...In retrospect, maybe I should have brought along ear plugs?) Fortunately, I didn't have to force myself at all to enjoy it; it all came quite easily. INXS wrote a bunch of upbeat and danceable numbers, and they were so much fun to hear that I came close to literally dancing, which is something that I just don't do. (Oh, my poor ear drums, though!! When I got home that evening and tried to go to sleep, I had such horrible tinnitus that it sounded like a million tortured souls were screaming at me from the pits of hell. It was so bad I couldn't go to sleep until about 2:30. Making it worse is that I have some sort of internal alarm clock that makes me incapable of sleeping in, and so I got up just three hours later to go to work.)
I noticed everyone in the audience were especially excited when INXS started to sing “Devil Inside.” I guess that explained why I saw some people clad in devil horns at the venue. Is that one of their signature songs? It was definitely loud and danceable, but it's lacking a memorable riff that make some of their other songs more awesome. ...It's for that reason, their rendition of “What You Need” was a million times better, because that one has one of those solid-gold riffs! Other songs I have a clear recollection of them playing is “Never Tear Us Apart,” “Don't Change,” and “New Sensation.” ...Indeed, they pretty much stuck with their greatest hits album, which I guess that makes sense since they were touring to promote Original Sin. That's an album of re-recorded versions of their old hits.
About midway through the concert, J.D. Fortune took off and the remaining guys were given a chance to shine on their own. Well? I say they were pretty darn good on their own! I think they would have fared mightily well without Fortune, if they wanted to. They all took lead vocals at one point for a very pretty and quite haunting ballad, and that was clearly one of the highlights of the evening. They also did an upbeat song that involved promoting one of the female back-up singers to lead. She did have quite a voice, and also—need I mention—was easy on the eyes! (As I was leaving the concert, I almost bumped into her... It was dark, and I couldn't quite make out why there was a crowd of people walking against the flow of traffic, and then in a flash, I saw her right next to me. Maybe she just wanted to catch a glimpse of Don Ignacio? Well, she's only human, I guess...)
If it's apparent that I'm not the biggest fan of INXS, I'll tell you I'm REALLY not a huge fan of Train. I mean, I might have low standards of the sort of music I can stomach—i.e. Barry Manilow—but I've got to draw the line somewhere. That line is drawn quite distinctly to exclude such artists as Hootie & the Blowfish, The Dave Matthews Band, and Train. I mean, say what you want about Barry Manilow, but he at least had the cojones to go neck-deep in that goofy kitsch he does. Those other bands I mentioned, on the other hand, can't seem to bear getting their feet wet in anything. (And believe me, INXS were less than a stone's throw away from being in that same camp... It was only their knack for finding catchy riffs and charismatic lead singers that saved them.) Well, the lead singer for Train (Patrick Monahan) unexpectedly popped up on stage and started to sing “Beautiful Girl.” I sort of shrugged my shoulders at it, which was in contrast to wild cheers and calls of “OooOOooOOOooOOoooo!!! I CAN'T BELIEVE HE'S HERE!!!” I heard erupting around me. I don't think Monahan was touring with the group, or anything, so this was a special one-time event that caught people by surprise. ...Well, I've always wanted to witness a surprise unveiling of a guest performer at a concert, and also I suppose I can tell people I've seen Patrick Monahan in person—and quite close up to boot. But then I'll supplement that by saying I don't really like his stuff, and that'll just piss people off.
However, INXS were a terribly entertaining live band, and J.D. Fortune wasn't the only reason for that. The other instrumentalists were quite a slick machine and also charismatic in their own right. If I could invite just one member to a backyard barbecue (or baahhhbie, as they call it Down Under), it would be Kirk Pengilly. That's mostly because I liked his dark rimmed glasses and his Shakespearean facial hair. Also, he could really belt it on those saxophones! Before the concert, I saw a roadie take out a bunch of saxophones, and I kind of got excited about that! When I heard Pengilly blare out in the middle of some of those INXS songs, that excitement was well justified.
I also liked to see all three Farris Brothers play a slowly evolving percussion bit at the very beginning of the concert. (How did I know that those three men were the Farris Brothers? Because I was listening to some guy behind me narrating.) If I hear that sort of thing on live albums, I'm usually nonchalant about it. ...However, seeing it live is much different. Not only are the sonic booms of those dramatic snare drum hits being sent directly to the center of my chest cavity thanks to my close proximity to the speakers, but there's also the hypnotizing visual aspect of watching those sticks in motion. I know that a studio version of that percussive bit shows up on Original Sin. Whenever I ever get around to reviewing that album, you can bet I won't be so kind to it. Drum-only compositions usually bore me.
Before going to the concert, I wasn't even aware that INXS were so well-loved in the United States. I bought my ticket to the show quite late and I got a seat close to the action, which gave me the impression the venue would only be partly filled. However, I was mistaken; that venue was pretty much up to capacity. Thinking about it for two seconds, I suppose the only reason I got a seat so close to the stage was because I was one of the few dorks there who actually went to it alone. (I did feel a bit awkward doing that, actually, which is odd because I used to go to rock concerts alone all the freaking time. Maybe it was because the only other person to go to that concert solo that I was aware of was the guy who gave Terri Nunn roses.)
Furthermore, people in the audience—for the most part—went completely bonkers over INXS. Especially toward the end of the concert, the security people had their hands full trying to keep those who paid for $45 tickets from jumping into the $65 ticket area. I mean, some of them were pretty kamikaze about it—jumping the rope, sprinting toward the stage, and then five seconds later, being escorted out. I noticed things really started to get out of hand when I saw—nearby the stage—a chunky and bald 40-year-old man standing on someone's shoulders while wiggling his ass, looking like he was screaming “Ooooooo!,” and clutching a ladies' handbag. That was one of the most bizarre sights I've ever seen, and I even noticed J.D. Fortune himself catching a glimpse of this and—for a moment—stopping his slithery, stage-antics and having a distinct WTF?! look on his face. I guess even there are some sights left in life that even the most hard-partying rock stars have to take a second to absorb... Well, it didn't take long for the ever-populated security staff to get him down and escort him out of there. I mean maybe that wasn't such an unusual sight, but it was the handbag that flew it over the top. (I'm at least aware that back in the '70s and '80s, concerts would get even wilder with people throwing live firecrackers and punching one another... Now, they're all fogies and have settled down considerably. But, as it is, is it any wonder a venue at our posh community in Washington State needs to have a full staff of security people?)
I'll conclude this by saying HOLY CRAP! I might not care the world for INXS's bag of songs, but I at least had a blast at the concert. I should also mention that this was the first actual rock concert I've been to since I saw The Rolling Stones in 2006, and it was about freaking time! Well, The Moody Blues show I went to last June probably counts as ROCK, but I was seated so far back that I was hardly in the midst of the action. Some people have called INXS the greatest live band on earth. I don't think for a moment that's true, but they certainly aren't slackers.
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