Wednesday, February 17, 2021

February 17th 2019, Peter Murphy at the Phoenix Concert Theatre

My very first solo performance was in high school when I got on stage during a talent show to perform an a cappella version of "St Vitus Dance" by Bauhaus. That was a special moment for me, an interesting intersection between my own artistic intentions and others' appreciation of those intentions that worked pretty well for the length of three minutes. I screamed my throat raw, and I remember not being able to speak above a croak for a couple of hours. It was pretty great.

My introduction to Bauhaus and the glory of "St Vitus Dance" was through my friend Jose, who loaned me a copy of "In the Flat Fields" at some point in grade ten. Jose knew that I was a fan of David Bowie and The Cure, and aside from their performance of "Bela Lugosi's Dead" at the start of "The Hunger" I hadn't really exposed myself to Bauhaus at all, but he could tell from my other musical interests that I'd be into them. And he was right, there was a familiar Glam sound and theatricality that suggested they were raised on "Ziggy Stardust" and "Diamond Dogs", taken a little bit further into darker extremes and territories. Where The Cure were alternately mopey and playful, and the Banshees were passionate and strong, Bauhaus seemed purposefully dark and appealingly pretentious. Plus, y'know, really great cheekbones. Like, really, really, really great cheekbones. 

That first album has some great moments on it, incendiary guitar and stomping drums, a certain manic charm, and lead singer Peter Murphy gives a delivery that alternates between softly crooning and screaming intensity at the flick of a switchblade. There was a real appeal to Bauhaus' sound for me, and a great appeal to the world that their music implied. Songs like "In the Flat Field" with it's literary allusions and it's razor edged guitar line, or the challenges inherent in "Double Dare", they suggested an exciting world that was a million miles away from the one that I knew. 

But it was "St Vitus Dance" that connected the most with me, a song about a performance artist who's commitment to their art takes an explosive turn. I'm not sure what it was that first triggered my interest in it, maybe the growing unease of Murphy's vocals, maybe that bouncing bass line, very probably just the story itself that's told with a building intensity, a burning strobe light pulse. It was and still is a pretty amazing piece of music. And in what may have been the beginning of my recurring desire to share all of the things that I enjoy with the rest of the world, I decided to perform it live for my high school talent show. 

For the most part, they may not have been ready for the screaming.  

But Jose liked it, and so did my English teacher, and a couple of people from the higher grades who knew the song and the album. That may have been the first time that I realized my own tastes didn't always run parallel with everybody else, and it was definitely the first time that I didn't care.

Since then, in the, what? seventy three years, eighty six, I can't really remember how long it's been since high school, but in the intervening years I've seen Bauhaus perform a handful of times, I've seen Peter Murphy solo, I've seen Daniel Ash, David J, Kevin Haskins in various combinations, solo shows, what have you, and some of those shows have been majestic and immense in their appeal, and some of those shows have been really great, and admittedly some of those shows have been less enjoyable than others. But there's a thread that runs through all of those concerts, all of the music they've made since, the suggestion of another world, another way of life. And I've always been grateful for their introduction to that world and to that way of life.

The most recent show I've seen by Peter Murphy was when he came to the Phoenix on February 17th 2019 to celebrate the Ruby anniversary of Bauhaus, where he and his band (including David J) would perform "In the Flat Fields" in it's entirety. So, y'know, I was pretty interested in that. My experience has been that at his best Murphy can be a dynamic and inspiring performer, and with the right material behind him (y'know, like the brooding and intense epic that is Bauhaus' first album), he can be quite impressive. It seemed like the kind of show that promised greatness.

I got to the Phoenix a little bit later than expected, so I missed most of the set by opener Vinsantos but I enjoyed what I did see, especially a heartfelt cover of "Crowds" which is another one of my favorite moments in the Bauhaus catalog. There's a certain courage on the part of an opener covering the main act's songs, especially such an intimate and personal song as "Crowds", and to deliver it so well, so sincerely, it's well worth remarking on and appreciating. Vinsantos definitely deserves a big round of applause for that one.

After a short break Peter Murphy took the stage to the opening of "Double Dare" just like the album, and it was a pretty excellent opening. I had a space pressed up against the right side of the stage so I had a pretty unobstructed view of Murphy and the band throughout the night, and during that opening the band were pretty into it, drawing from the energy of the song, the energy of the audience, building the kind of feedback loop that often makes for a great performance.

Except, well, it never quite reached that level in my mind. Maybe it was an off night, maybe there were other frustrations on stage (there were a couple of flare ups during the set that definitely suggested that all was not well with the band...), maybe it was my own subconscious comparison between what I wanted to see and what "In the Flat Fields" meant to me versus the actual performance of it almost forty years later, but, well, the show just didn't inspire me the way that I hoped that it would.

Don't get me wrong, it sounded great, it was awesome to see these songs live (the title track was particularly impressive, and I won't deny that "St Vitus Dance" sounded far better than I ever sang it), but it... didn't... quite... scale the heights I had hoped for. I feel badly saying that, especially when pretty much everybody I knew that saw the show said it was a revelatory experience for them, one of the best shows they'd ever been to. And I can see how that would be, it was a great set of music, buuuuuuut, it just didn't work for me. At least not the way that I hoped it would.

After a run through the entire album, Murphy and the band played a set of Bauhaus classics including "She's in Parties" and "Bela Lugosi's Dead" among others and again they were all delivered well, and I appreciated the opportunity to hear them, but by that point my heart wasn't in it. And further to my feeling that maybe it was an off night for the band, after the set proper they only came out for one encore as opposed to the three or four songs that they played in other cities. Which is kind of ironic to me, as their take on "Adrenaline" was one of the best parts of the show in my mind, a brief moment that seemed to capture all of the incendiary qualities that I was hoping would fuel the entire show. For the length of the encore I saw everything I was hoping for but just as soon as they reached that point the show was over and we were all walking slowly out of the venue into the cold February night.

Sometimes the quality of a concert can be measured in moments and I guess this was one of those times, at least it was for me. It wasn't quite what I was looking forward to (and I recognize that's largely my own fault for letting nostalgia get the best of me and hoping for too much), but there were moments, parts of the show that shone really briefly and really brightly. Those are the parts that I think about when I think about Peter Murphy at The Phoenix, rather than the rest of the show that I didn't enjoy as much. And those moments shine brightly enough in my memory that I smile whenever I think about that night...

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