Reporter Matthew Hay Brown took a break from covering military affairs and national security to review the Psychedelic Furs' show at Rams Head on Stage Monday night.
Is there anyone having more fun at a Psychedelic Furs show than frontman Richard Butler? His lyrical sophistication and that buzzsaw voice have always given the band’s work a certain gravity, but Butler spent so much of their performance in Annapolis on Monday hopping, grinning, beaming that the main impression he conveyed was of a guy having the time of his life.
Not that he was the only one. The sold-out show at the intimate Rams Head On Stage – they’re due back again Tuesday evening – was filled with fans who sang along to nearly every word of a set drawn largely from the sweet spot of the Furs’ catalog: The early-1980s trifecta of "Talk Talk Talk," "Forever Now" and "Mirror Moves." Three decades on, the enthusiasm remains mutual.
The band, which has toured regularly since reforming a decade ago, have become familiar visitors to the region: They’ve performed in and around Maryland several times in recent years, including stops at Baltimore Soundstage and the Filmore Silver Spring in September. Happily, their repertoire is of such depth, variety and consistently high quality that they’re able to vary their sets for repeat customers.
Playing without a warmup act, the band opened Monday with a driving “Into You Like a Train,” the Talk Talk Talk-era bridge between their punk-inspired beginnings and the more melodic music that would come, both in their recording career and in the evening’s setlist.
Band members have come and gone and come again – founding brothers Richard and Tim Butler are joined in the current lineup by mid-’80s drummer Paul Garisto and saxophonist Mars Williams, back for a second go-round, with relative newcomers Richard Good on guitar and Amanda Kramer on keyboards – but the core elements of the live Furs remain intact: The pulsing rhythm section, the swirling guitar; bassist Tim Butler looming over the edge of the stage, mouthing the words and menacing the front rows, Richard Butler prancing, swaying, rotating in place amid the beautiful chaos.
And there’s that one-of-a-kind voice, the unlikely marriage of Johnny Rotten’s outrage with David Bowie’s cool, run through nodule-hardened vocal cords. It’s long been described as an acquired taste, but is there anyone who, on being in the same room with it, isn’t mesmerized? It added to the sinister tilt of “Alice’s House,” while Butler swayed and waved like the fan-blown inflatable guy at the car dealership, while floating over a smooth “Love My Way.”
Good acquitted himself well enough in place of guitar innovator John Ashton, though the instrument, once central to the Furs’ sound, now seems to have been demoted to an equal footing with the keyboards. Or maybe it was the mix on this, the second night of the spring tour, or where I happened to be sitting.
Happy exceptions were the album track “House,” transformed with a reverb-drenched, almost surf-toned lead riff, and the fine new “After All,” a melodic tune propelled by chiming chords over a stately, near-martial drum cadence.
This latter was the latest in a series of unreleased songs the band has rolled out in the last decade, in anticipation of the new album the Butlers have long teased. All of them – “Wrong Train,” a live staple that they didn’t play Monday, plus “Cigarette” and “Why Can’t You Be Wrong?” – suggest a terrific collection of fresh Furs, rooted in that 1980s golden era without succumbing to nostalgia.
It helps that the Furs’ best music has aged better than that of many of their early-MTV peers. Through Mirror Moves, their sound remained different enough to keep them outside of any pack. That voice isn’t tied to any era, and the lyrics have always conveyed rich imagery free of contextual specifics.
On the rare excursion into topicality – “President Gas,” about oil politics and Reagan’s America – it might be design or luck that he chose a subject of relevance that has proved enduring. As for the saxophone-driven Bowie nod “Heartbreak Beat,” from the misbegotten grab for commercial success Midnight to Midnight – well, that one does sound dated, but it’s so damned catchy, who’s going to complain?
It probably helps also that Butler himself never stopped making interesting, creative new music: He and his brother continued the high quality in the 1990s in "Love Spit Love," and his 2006 solo album might be his strongest work. This enables the new songs to be heard as part of a continuum, moving outward from a strong foundation, as opposed to an attempt to recapture some lost past.
And finally, the Furs pay the music and their fans the respect of playing the songs straight. Five came from "Mirror Moves," four from "Forever Now," three from "Talk Talk Talk," and one each from "Midnight to Midnight," "Book of Days" and the self-titled debut.
These included faithful renderings of the MTV hits – joining “Love My Way” and “Heartbreak Beat” were “The Ghost in You,” “Heaven” and “Pretty in Pink,” in the sax-driven remake recorded for the John Hughes movie.
Other highlights included a throbbing “Only You and I,” a smoky “Imitation of Christ” and a roaring “Highwire Days,” as Butler walked an imaginary tightrope over swirling guitar and pounding drums.
Into You Like a Train
Pretty in Pink
Only You and I
Imitation of Christ
It Goes On
The Ghost in You
Love My Way
House President Gas
Forever NowCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun