Thursday, 17 March 2016

RETROSPECTIVE REVIEW - The Human League - Copper-Bottomed Synthpop Hits Frustratingly Served Cold - Victoria Theatre, Halifax, 30.11.10

“I just peeked a look outside,” announces Phil Oakey as he returns to the stage for the encore at Halifax’s Victoria Theatre. “I don’t know if it was forecast to, but it’s snowing. Heavily.” He grins wryly, a touch of irony colouring his tone. “If you’re going home on public transport, good luck. You’re going to need it.”

There’s a distinctly Northern warmth to Oakey, something that can surprise initially based on previous conceptions. After all, his band The Human League spent the eighties as one of the coolest groups on the planet, their machine-tooled synthpop heralding the second British musical invasion of the USA. A large part of their success lies with the androgynous Oakey, his slicked long black hair and smudged eyeshadow predating Robert Smith’s adoption of such a look by half a decade. The rest is indebted to the arsenal of copper-bottomed pop classics that matched his look, and that of dual female vocalists Joanna Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley.

The Human League live in 2010. (Courtesy of eFestivals.)
The three remain the only members of the band that conquered both sides of the Atlantic after tension and in-fighting drove away original members. It’s been so long since their heyday, it’s hard to honestly say if absent members are missed; for many, The Human League is the trio that steps out on stage tonight, accompanied by a quartet of backing musicians and a Doctor Who stage set of white podiums and dry ice.

Support comes from synth-rockers Performance, who deliver a mature set that blends juddering bass and electronic pop under frontman Joe Cross’s plaintive vocal cries and heart-on-sleeve lyrics, before they give way to the main attraction. Long since a touring band, The Human League’s current tour is in support first-album-in-a-decade Credo, from which they cull the rather rote opener Electric Shock as Catherall and Sully, in sequined mini-dresses and Star Trek haircuts, clutch their microphone stands as Oakey, dressed under a black hood, draws out a low falsetto over the rhythm. They are no fools though and know what the vast majority of middle-aged punters are here for; the hits.

And so, duly, they deliver, in a set that spans eighty-five minutes and the breadth of their entire career. Oakey is the clear-cut showman amongst them; whilst Catherall may do a twirl and Sulley a small wiggle, it is the now-bald Yorkshireman who marshals his band through energetic renditions of Open Your Heart and Louise. Against a backdrop of cyclists, he preens during Mirror Man, and ignites hand-claps for the bombastic Love Action (I Believe in Love). He delivers his strongest performance on the lyrically-atrocious but musically-awesome The Lebanon, an anti-war anthem that packs a meaty guitar riff to set it apart from the synth-dominance across the rest of the material.

The Human League live in 2012. (Courtesy of Leeds List)
But there’s a definite feeling of going-through-the-motions. Oakey’s exuberance at points highlights how he sometimes seems to be the only person on stage having any fun – and even then, he flags on occasion, his vocals strained by time and age. It bleeds into the crowd too; during Being Boiled, a low murmur of chatter moves across the auditorium as Oakey snarls the words in his most punkish drawl. The sound wildly fluctuates too; The Sound of the Crowd sounds far too quiet, whilst new track Night People blares at its audience in an obscenely loud fashion only minutes later. At times, it doesn’t feel alive enough, disconnected and cold as atmospheres go; a shame as Oakey often seems to be busting a gut.

Of course, the whole building lights up when the distinctive intro to Don’t You Want Me erupts from the keyboards, and Oakey’s resulting smile is wide, with a tinge of relief and frustration. Their encore ends equally voraciously as the band tear into a heavier take on Oakey’s solo hit Together in Electric Dreams, long adopted as a setlist staple by the band. It feels like a crescendo, as the Victoria Theatre raises to its feet to dance along and sing, but perhaps not one earned by the band. Oakey is engaging as they come; but perhaps that cold snow outside could be an apt metaphor for The Human League – rather beautiful to look at, but cold to the touch.

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