Sunday, September 25, 2011

Erasure / Frankmusik - Live 2011.09.21 The Pageant, St. Louis, Missouri

Why do good concerts often come in pairs... or trios? I'm seeing three concerts in four days this week. Here's the first!

Artist: Erasure
Venue: The Pageant
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 21 September 2011
Opening Act: Frankmusik

01. Sono Luminus
02. Always
03. When I Start To (Break It All Down)
04. Blue Savannah
05. Fill Us with Fire
06. Drama!
07. You've Got to Save Me Right Now
08. Ship of Fools
09. Chorus
10. Breathe
11. Victim of Love
12. Alien
13. Hideaway
14. Love to Hate You
15. I Lose Myself
16. A Whole Lotta Love Run Riot
17. Breath of Life
18. Chains of Love
19. Sometimes
20. A Little Respect

21. Oh L'amour
22. Stop!

Whenever I hear about an electronic or dance-pop band going on tour, I always wonder how they'll reproduce their music live. It seems that bands more grounded in rock will try to perform as much live on "actual" instruments as possible. (See, for example, The Faint, although they also obviously "cheat" and use samples to augment their sound.) But it would seem that most bands in these genres just through caution to the wind and let samples dominate the show. Although I much prefer seeing the music reproduced on "real" instruments before my eyes, I can't truly blame electronic artists for eschewing that ideal. It's just not really practical to do it all live sometimes.

The opening act, Frankmusik, is really just one person, but he appeared on stage with a drummer and a keyboardist. This led one to the believe that they would try to reproduce their full sound live, but it quickly became apparent that this was not the case: the vocals were clearly processed, multi-tracked, and heavily autotuned. The keyboardist sang as well, but her vocal and instruments parts were minimal and could not account for the full sound, and she left her instrument to sing a duet, exposing the band's heavy reliance on samples. However, the live drummer surprised me. He was probably the best performer in the band, and his set was miked and mixed incredibly well for the style.

More important than arbitrary snobbery about performance style is of course the quality of the music. Frankly, it wasn't good. It was very generic pop without a hint of innovation. I am saddened that the core member of the band is producing Erasure's new album. Frankmusik has no sense of subtlety or depth and I can only hope he keeps his hands out of Erasure's craft as much as possible. I was glad their set was short.

Erasure, normally just a two-piece in the studio, hit the stage with two backup singers, which is apparently fairly standard for their live act. Instrumentalist (and former Depeche Mode and Yazoo co-founder) Vince Clarke and vocalist Andy Bell both appeared in bright, sequined, red jackets. Vince had a matching top hat while Andy donned a large sort of mask. The stage was surrounded by cylindrical cages and large gargoyle statues, which created a somewhat dark mood in contrast with the band's rather uptempo sound. Vince stood behind one of these gargoyles and presumably handled the programming and sampling. One could see a Mac laptop behind the gargoyle, and it appeared during most songs that he was playing keyboard parts live, although it was impossible to see an actual instrument. But while Vince hardly moved, Andy danced around the stage and handled all the talking.

Andy removed his mask after the first song, and after the second, he removed his jacket to reveal a tight shirt laced across the back. Halfway through the set, Andy called Vince over, and he proceeded to cut the laces. Upon completion, Andy put on a Michael Jackson t-shirt. Let it be said that Andy Bell does not hold back. During instrumental breaks, no matter how short, he usually passed the time dancing little routines across the stage. And of course, his voice was in top form. I would not be surprised if he also used an autotuner, but at least he didn't sound like a machine, and he let his backup singers hit the harmonies instead of using samples.

Vince remained thoroughly isolated from the action until he pulled out an acoustic guitar and strummed through a few songs. He repeated this at the end when the band played their extremely popular early singles in series. Most of the concert consisted of the band's biggest singles across their long career, although there were five songs from their upcoming album interspersed. Nothing else on the setlist could be called a surprise, but the chosen material was clearly what the audience wanted. The whole venue was in a jovial mood and by the end nearly everyone was out of their seats and dancing wherever they could. There was an effervescent energy in the air.

The music sounded great. The instrumental work, whether sequenced or live, retained the signature two-part, electronic, uptempo, pop feel, and the vocals were simply superb. The classics sounded great, and they certainly played every one of their songs that I wanted to hear, but I couldn't help wonder where the ABBA covers were – it was once a trademark move of the band. The band's own songs are generally very gender-neutral (for fairly obvious reasons), but the band has covered multiple ABBA songs without changing the pronouns (as if the message wasn't already clear). I was really hoping for "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)" in the encore, but I can hardly complain about "Oh L'amour". When Vince used a little soundbox to give Andy the notes of the melody, the crowd went wild. Even if they don't make all their music live, at least their melodies and harmonies stand the test of time. These guys know the craft of pop songwriting well.

Frankmusik: D
Erasure: B

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