The version of the 2014 Retro Futura show that landed in San Francisco was billed as a “Secret Show,” with tickets only going on sale 48 hours prior for the intimate set at the hip joint Mezzanine. Granted it was a scaled-down version of the tour, but so was the price: $25 a pop.
But if you had to pick two of the four acts, you could do worse than Howard Jones and Tom Bailey (from the Thompson Twins).
Jones is a known quantity. Touring nonstop with his extremely sturdy songbook has allowed the friendly, confident Jones to show off his remixed hits, which remain relevant (read: not dated) after so many years. Worth pointing out: a great song is a great song, no matter how it’s played, and Jones is keenly aware of durability of hits such as the sing-a-long-friendly “No One is to Blame,” the playful “New Song” and the thumping house rethinking of “Things Can Only Get Better.”
After all these years, Jones is still in fine voice, the San Francisco audience more than willing to hit the high notes if he needed them to. He didn’t. Instead, Jones played with expectations, combining big hits with chestnuts such as “Pearl in the Shell.” Every time Jones reached for the keyboard-guitar, the crowd went nuts. Sometimes it emanated a plinky early-80s synth, other times it sounded like an organ crossed with Godzilla.
Both times I saw Howard Jones, he was followed by another act in the unfortunate position of having to follow Howard Jones. By the time Jones’ set comes to an end, it has become a transformative experience that takes the trappings of retro new wave and turned it into a celebration of joy against the backdrop of great songwriting. Jones is an exceptional live performer.
Thompson Twins’ Tom Bailey is about the only act on the Retro Futura tour that could compete with Jones – not with the purity of great music, but with an undeniably kickass story. Bailey, after all, had resolved himself to never play his old pop songs again. The Twins had disbanded in 1987 and as legend goes, this is Bailey’s first time performing hits like “Lies” and “You Take me Up” in 27 years.
The crowd knew every word, singing the chorus whenever prompted, which probably did Bailey a few favors. His set was decidedly shorter than Jones’ and that was even with leaving hits like “Into the Gap” off the playlist. Wearing dark sunglasses limited eye contact, but Bailey seemed genuinely pleased to play his old songs, and might have even wondered why he didn’t do it sooner.
Alternating between a keyboard and bass guitar with the occasion percussion flourish, Bailey left most of the chugging to his all-female band. At one point, he refers to them as his “Sisters of Mercy,” but I kept wondering why they weren’t just billed as Thompson Twins.
Branding is everything, dude.
“Doctor Doctor” was turned into a lovely, ever-building anthem, and “King for a Day” was slowed to allow everyone a chance to participate. But it was the Twins’ biggest smash “Hold Me Now,” held back for the encore, that faded lovingly into one of the best “spontaneous” crowd sing-a-longs in recent memory.
It was a solid night of smash hits and retro goodness with Jones emerging the clear victor. His years on the road and solid lineup of durable hit songs have served him well in crafting a well-honed crowd-pleasing set. But it was also lovely to welcome back a slightly-rusty Bailey and watch several hundred people in an intimate crowd singing at the top of their lungs.
– Dennis Willis