Blancmange recently completed a two-night live stint at The Red Gallery in London. We were fortunate to be over from San Francisco, to catch the first of these on Friday May 15, 2015. Blancmange last made it to my city by the bay way back in the early 1980’s when I felt similarly fortunate to catch a show at the Old Waldorf. There we witnessed Neil Arthur (vocals, haircut, quirky moves), Stephen Luscombe (keyboards) and David Rhodes (guitar, rhythm) play along with a reel to reel tape, backup singers, and a harried drummer who had occasional trouble keeping up with the pace of Stephen’s drum machine. It was a fantastic show – one of my favorite memories of 80’s era “new wave” concerts we attended in and around San Francisco.
Blancmange is now primarily the vehicle for singer Neil Arthur and his current day electronic music. Founding partner Stephen Luscombe is said to be ill, unable to join on this album and live shows that follow. For the concert, long time guitarist and collaborator David Rhodes, was present once again. His resume includes work with Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Tim Finn and many others. He joined Neil, along with Ogoo Maia and producer Adam Fuest on keys and computers.
The new album Semi Detached, featured prominently in the show, from long opener “The Fall” to the buoyant “Paddington” (Neil said this could have been written about almost any rail station) and the most danceable track “Acid,” that harkens back to their 1980’s origins. The sound of this new record is somewhat metronomic – sometimes a bit colder than early albums. But it’s an effective updating of their original approach, coloring lyrics that hew to modern mature themes and bringing to mind German peers who’ve explored similar territory. Melancholy and joy is balanced, with Neil’s wit, clever wordplay and occasional bite still clearly on display.
On this evening, Neil’s clear baritone was in fine form, delivered forcefully. Though his role was as usual on main vocals, he unexpectedly picked up a melodica for one of the rare early tracks. David Rhodes was his typical affable self, working more to color tracks than taking the lead. He was best heard on new song “Bloody Hell Fire” full of trademark winding, wailing guitar to back Neil’s emotive lead vocal. All the backing keyboard work supported the two leads effectively.
The set list was peppered with rare tracks including “I Would” and “Running Thin,” both early B-sides, and “Holiday Camp” from their debut EP, alongside a handful of fan favorites from their early catalog, “Game Above My Head,” “I Can’t Explain,” “Blind Vision” and the propulsive, desperate sound of “Feel Me.” With so much new material in the set list, and the rarities known mostly to dedicated fans, there wasn’t a chance to include additional early album cuts from the 80’s. But, the new material demonstrated that Blancmange is of continued interest, and on the whole the show was fun and appealing.
To prove the point, the encore began with a jubilant cover of Can’s “I Want More” from the new album followed by their signature track “Living On The Ceiling” from their first, leaving the rapturous audience plenty warm and satisfied.