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Songs from the Big ‘80s: Tears for Fears at Rams Head Live, Aug. 24

It's been 25 years now since British pop group Tears for Fears released its second album, the transatlantic blockbuster Songs From the Big Chair. And though the band's core duo of Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith have faced diminishing commercial returns with subsequent albums, split up, and then reunited again, it feels like their music is still everywhere. In 2010 alone, "Shout" was sampled for a UK No. 1 World Cup anthem and "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" has been covered by Ted Leo, interpolated by Dru Hill, and featured in a Payless ad campaign. And it was that kind of enduring ubiquity that packed fans into Rams Head Live on Tuesday to hear those songs as done by the original artists. The six-piece band that came to Baltimore this week played the Tears for Fears hits you were expecting about as well as you could hope for. Orzabal's distinctive, throaty voice and Smith's wispier tones have aged surprisingly well as they both push 50, and a male backup vocalist with a shockingly high range seemed to be there more to fill out the harmonies (and sing the female parts on "Woman in Chains") than to cover up their shortcomings. And the more playfully ornate, psychedelic pop of the band's later albums came off surprisingly well onstage, mixed judiciously among its signature '80s hits. The biggest surprise of the set was a cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," which may have been a hit back in the same era that Tears for Fears were topping the charts but would seem a little outside of their wheelhouse. The band's slow-burning arrangement of it, however, was distinct and far superior to the rock ballad version recorded a couple years ago by Chris Cornell and performed by American Idol winner David Cook. And it even made a kind of musical sense, situated among Tears originals like "Pale Shelter" and "Advice for the Young at Heart." Orzabal introduced the breakthrough 1982 hit "Mad World" by talking for a few minutes about the Gary Jules cover that brought the song renewed attention in recent years. But he was entirely too charitable to that droning, insipid version of the song, and it was refreshing to hear it played as it should be, an upbeat synth-pop arrangement contrasting with the dark subject matter. Though they came back with more hits for the encore, the night peaked with a well chosen one-two punch that concluded the main set. The band's last significant U.S. hit, 1993's "Break It Down Again," has aged incredibly well with its barrage of irresistible hooks, and it was kind of heartwarming to watch Smith sing backup on a song originally recorded during the period when he was on the outs with Orzabal and not a member of the band. And hot on its heels came the massive, instantly recognizable piano melody of "Head Over Heels," which brought on the kind of big, joyous singalong that Tears for Fears has always inspired at its best, with or without nostalgia playing a part.

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