Concert review: Tears for Fears at Rams Head Live

Sun writer Evan Haga saw Tears for Fears last night at Rams Head Live. Here are his thoughts:

There was a lot of grace and balance about Tears for Fears' roughly hour-and-a-half performance last night at Rams Head Live: A healthy sense of nostalgia was present, sure, but the show didn't use the past as a crutch, or as a reason not to apply a little elbow grease.

As a touring sextet, Tears for Fears sounded well-rehearsed, precise, über-professional; somewhat surprising considering the band hasn't, like many of its contemporaries, made a post-career of touring the hits ...

Craftsmanship has always been part of the equation, though. An English pop duo consisting of songwriters Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, Tears for Fears is best known for producing a handful of singles that vividly evoke the mid-'80s but are so sharply written they transcend the period.

But TFF could sustain its songwriting prowess at album length, producing ambitious pop songs that sounded like hits even as commerce passed them by — 2004's comeback album "Everybody Loves a Happy Ending," which came and went with insufficient fanfare, comes to mind.

Last night's set deftly balanced the hits and album cuts, the vintage material and music from just a half-decade ago. Almost remarkably, there was a cohesion here that made it seem as if it all could have been from the same album — perhaps the edgiest adult-contemporary record you've ever heard, the sort of LP that sees no shame in featuring synthesizers playing horn sounds. So the mega-hit book-ends, "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" and "Shout," sounded coherent alongside "Happy Ending" standouts like "Secret World" and that album's Beatles-y title track.

"Sowing the Seeds of Love," an ambitious, multi-sectioned suite of a pop hit from 1989, made sense in the same set as 2004's "Call Me Mellow," or 1983's "Mad World" and "Pale Shelter," or 1993's "Break It Down Again," its militaristic synth groove absolutely propulsive in a live setting. (That last song came after Orzabal and Smith's early-'90s split, when Orzabal was using the Tears for Fears name essentially as a solo artist. A petty band might have excluded it on principle, but it's the best offering from that era of the band and was a welcome addition here.) Even a curve ball cover, a ballad arrangement of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," pretty seamlessly melded into the whole.

As pop music goes, this stuff can be demanding, with creative song forms and unforgiving vocal melodies. The band tackled the material head-on, however, doing an impressive job of recreating the expansive recorded arrangements, often to a tee, and without appearing to try too hard. Vocally Orzabal, who also played guitar, and Smith, also on bass, achieved the equilibrium they've long practiced, Orzabal singing in stout low tones, Smith in feathery highs. (The arrangement can call to mind another original synth-pop group with its fair share of hits, Depeche Mode; Orzabal would be the Dave Gahan to Smith's Martin Gore.)

But the evening's most outstanding vocal moment — it was thrilling, actually — belonged to Orzabal and back-up vocalist (and opening act) Michael Wainwright. On "Woman in Chains," Orzabal covered his part with trademark drama and heartiness, and Wainwright masterfully took on the female duet part that belongs on record to Oleta Adams. He tackled it so well, in fact, that the somewhat strange androgyny factor of the situation went out the window; instead, it was easier to just marvel at his vocal instrument, in all its wailing, falsetto glory.

There were jokes, too: some from Smith about aging, and a monologue from Orzabal listing gigs that might not reflect a band whose album sales number in the multi-millions. There have been gigs at casinos, theaters, small clubs and even a "car park" in Buffalo. The set was so good such modesty wasn't necessary, but it was a nice touch.

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