On a day where millions of people worldwide watched as Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin was memorialized in royal fashion in Detroit, some fellow Midwesterners got an up-close-and-personal bit of closure from three ‘80s pop bands sharing billing at the Ravinia Park open-air pavilion near Chicago.
Tom Bailey of the Thompson Twins, the B-52s and Boy George/Culture Club each took the stage and paid their respects to Franklin, who died from pancreatic cancer on August 16 and who was funeralized earlier Friday.
Their gestures were timely and well-received by the crowd of about 4,000 fans and – if nothing else – they showed just how respected and influential the Queen of Soul was, not only with soul music here in America, but in genres as diverse as rock, new wave and pop and in places like England – from where Tom Bailey and Culture Club hail.
Tom Bailey got the night’s affairs started with his all-girl backing band consisting of three young women who likely weren’t even born when Thompson Twins first recorded their hits. Dressed in all white, Bailey and his band mates rolled through the Twins’ biggest hits (both here and across the pond) with songs including “We Are Detective,” “Love On Your Side,” “You Take Me Up,” “Lies,” and my personal favorite, the sublime “Lay Your Hands On Me.” They also played Bailey’s new solo song “Science Fiction,” the title track of the 2018 album on sale at the venue’s gift shop.
Bailey’s Aretha tribute came midway through his short set list with “Sister of Mercy,” the 1984 track that he dedicated to the late soul icon. Absent a literal interpretation of some of the song’s lyrics, the selection seemed oddly appropriate for the occasion. Yet while his young backing band of twenty- or thirty-something-year-old women played and sang backup on the song, I couldn’t help but think of Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen,” where the protagonist scolds a very young woman for not remembering the Queen of Soul. I imagined the women sharing the stage with Bailey likely falling into a similar category before Aretha’s recent passing.
Bailey himself has aged well and for the most part his vocals have held up in the nearly thirty years since he last charted in America. His fire-red mane of big ‘80s hair has since been replaced by the expected grey, but it was still there (not many of us ‘80s heyday fans in attendance could say the same – myself included).
His set concluded with its most crowd-pleasing number “Doctor! Doctor!” (the song was performed true to the original version and sounded the best), and their biggest American hit “Hold Me Now,” where Bailey oddly replaced the falsetto ad-libbed parts in the final chorus with his thin baritone and led the audience in a singalong before taking a bow and exiting the stage.
Next came the B-52s, the quirky new wave band from Athens, Georgia including original members Cindy Wilson, Fred Schneider, and Kate Pierson (original member Keith Strickland no longer tours with the band but is still a member).
Their set kicked off with “Planet Claire” and continued through “Dance This Mess Around,” where Schneider played every weird instrument in sight, and “Private Idaho,” a crowd favorite featuring some amazing drum work by veteran touring member Sterling Campbell.
For those wondering, Schneider is just as deadpan as ever, and the two B-52 girls Pierson and Wilson still sport crazy wigs, with Wilson’s beehive as tight and blonde as it was in the 1980s and Pierson’s the brightest red. Their thrift-store chic was also still intact as Wilson donned a tight-fitting leopard-spotted dress and Pierson wore a throwback ensemble with multi-colored horizontal rings and matching tasselled sleeves.
The band’s homage to Aretha Franklin came via “52 Girls,” a song originally about “girls of the USA,” as the lyrics go. In a country without royalty, American Kate Pierson introduced the tune as the group’s tribute to the “Queen of the USA, Aretha Franklin,” drawing no objection from the crowd.
For that song, Fred Schneider, who was donning a t-shirt that read “No Dancing,” had retreated backstage where he remained for the next one, the big hit “Roam.” Ironically, it was the first song that succeeded in getting everyone out of their seats to dance – something the band had implored the audience to do since it first took the stage.
When Schneider returned, the group played “Party Out Of Bounds,” their ode to party crashers everywhere. Things then got serious for a moment as Fred wished everyone a happy Labor Day weekend before acknowledging his dad’s service in the military and later as a union man – something the Chicago crowd could certainly appreciate. He then remarked that he preferred to celebrate that kind of service over the “crap show in Washington, where no one serves anybody.” It was the night’s only political note and was non-partisan in its vagueness.
The B-52s finished strong with the triplicate of “Give Me Back My Man,” featuring Schneider on the bell lyra, “Love Shack,” the band’s biggest hit which they paired in a medley with War’s “Low Rider,” and their first hit, “Rock Lobster,” the nearly 40-year-old song about a beach party in which crustaceans and other unusual fish avoid being eaten by joining in on the fun.
That wacky B-52s’ college radio anthem gave way to the soulful Boy George and Culture Club, the night’s final act.
With original members guitarist Roy Hay and bassist Mikey Craig in tow (fellow original member Jon Moss was noticeably absent), Boy George – who’s sporting a more goth look these days – led the group through songs old and new, beginning with a cover of the late David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” followed by the Culture Club hits “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya” and “It’s A Miracle.”
Ever the showman, Boy George gave plenty of dialogue. He repeatedly spoke of liberation – both his and the audience’s – and then about the group’s four-decade soap-opera-like existence noting “the collective drama on this stage would kill a beginner.”
Before launching the newer reggae-influenced Culture Club tune “Let Somebody Love You,” he asked the crowd “are you here with somebody you love?,” then suggested that if you weren’t, then maybe “you’re” the problem – something he admitted he had learned about himself.
Boy George, dressed in black with a black top hat and wearing white sneakers that bore the words “truth” and “honour,” remained in self-discovery mode for another newer song, “The Truth Is A Runaway Train,” in which he recalled his younger days of taking the train to the west side of London where he discovered who he “really was” in the town’s discos.
For the big 1983 hit “Time (Clock Of The Heart),” the fully liberated Boy George recalled his soul music influences by giving shoutouts to American soul legends The Stylistics, Barry White, Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight & the Pips, the latter of whom he called his “heroes” and chided the audience when the mention of Knight’s name didn’t evoke the response he expected.
“Clearly you’ve never heard of (Gladys) in Chicago,” he joked, drawing laughter from the mostly “pop” audience in the venue.
Undaunted, the group continued its multi-genre collection of tunes with their reggae take on Bread’s “Everything I Own,” followed by their own reggae-tinged “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me.” Then came the Memphis soul of “Different Man,” followed by their own top-ten soul chart hit “Miss Me Blind,” and the Motown-ish “Church Of The Poison Mind,” my favorite and ironically the only one of their ten top-40 pop hits that failed to also make the Billboard R&B charts.
Regarding soul music, Culture Club’s tribute to the Queen came in a revival-like finish during the encore as the band performed the refrain to Aretha’s classic 1968 hit, “Chain Of Fools.”
It was a perfect way to end a day of tributes to an American treasure by a British band who clearly appreciated its soul music roots.
Tom Bailey Set List; Ravinia, August 31, 2018
- We Are Detective
- Love on Your Side
- Science Fiction
- You Take Me Up
- Sister of Mercy (dedicated to Aretha)
- Lay Your Hands On Me
- Doctor, Doctor
- Hold Me Now (encore)
B-52s Set List; Ravinia, August 31, 2018:
- Planet Claire
- Dance This Mess Around
- Private Idaho
- Strobe Light
- 52 Girls (dedicated to Aretha)
- Party Out Of Bounds
- Give Me Back My Man
- Love Shack/Low Rider (War cover; medley)
- Rock Lobster
Culture Club Set List; Ravinia, August 31, 2018:
- Let’s Dance (David Bowie cover)
- It’s A Miracle
- I’ll Tumble 4 Ya
- Let Somebody Love You
- Time (Clock of the Heart)
- The Truth Is A Runaway Train
- Everything I Own (Bread cover)
- Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?
- Different Man
- Miss Me Blind
- Church Of The Poison Mind
- Addicted To Love (Robert Palmer cover)
- Karma Chameleon
- Chain of Fools (Aretha Franklin cover and tribute)