It’s exactly 8:59 p.m. when the house lights dim and drums begin to pound. The Fox’s hype music has long since faded to silence, yielding in favour of a sultry voice slinking through the speakers. It’s Lorde, a disembodied voice singing the first few bars of “Everybody Wants to Rule The World,” but she’s not the star here– in fact, no one seems to recognize her voice, or even care. The percussion pounds more frequently, almost urgently, spotlights flashing but never illuminating the stage (which, by now is a tiny swarm of musicians taking their places). It’s a rapid, dramatic buildup that could only be fit for one of the most infamously emotionally charged bands of the ‘80s and in a flash of light, said band is illuminated.
Tears For Fears are back, and for the next few hours, Oakland is their world to rule.
Over the course of the night, Tears For Fears will rip through hits from their four most famous albums– The Hurting, Songs From the Big Chair, The Seeds of Love, and Everybody Loves A Happy Ending –grouped according to album in a pleasant, if predictable way. Primary songwriter and co-vocalist Roland Orzabal will banter with the audience between songs, glass of wine in hand (delivered by a stagehand mid-concert, because he is an ‘80s veteran and he deserves that). Midway through the concert, Curt Smith will ascend from his position as modest bass player, step to center stage and deliver a rousing rendition of classic single “Mad World,” muscles in his sinewy arms flexing as he air drums along with the music. Smith, too, will banter about Northern California weed, having caught a whiff from the audience below.
“I must be in Northern California- I can smell it!”
The clearest downfall of Tears For Fears’ show, or that of any act solidly tied to a certain decade, is that most fans are there solely for a live run through of greatest hits. Is that, in itself, a bad thing? Not entirely, especially if the band is able to perform at the same caliber of which they achieved fame. Smith and Orzabal can– their harmonies are still as tight as ever, and both the former’s rich vocals and the latter’s occasional soaring falsetto intact. Is it a little sad seeing most of the audience check out every other song? Sure. But when the crowd eventually primal-shrieks along to every word of “Shout” or “Pale Shelter” in complete unison, it feels like an even lovelier, hard-earned spectacle.
It would have been easy for the band to show up, play 10 or 15 songs decently and leave to cash in another cheque. Rather, they played somewhere near 20, with Orzabal even playing his famed guitar solos from “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” and “Shout” while the young gun guitarist they’d hired into a backing band watched on. It also would have been easy for the band to go pure ‘80s cheese, all machine gun drum machine beats and old school synths. That’s still fashionable in some circles, and anything would have sold to a die-hard audience used to that from the original songs.
Rather, Tears For Fears hired a real drummer with a real drum-kit to enrich their standard backing drum machine tracks, and a phenomenal British jazz singer named Carina Round (also the opening act, who impressively held her own with solely an acoustic guitar for musical accompaniment) for an extra dimension of backing vocals.
Despite several decades of experience, there were still some missteps in modernization. The aforementioned real drum kit tended at times to overpower the keyboardist—a true sin given that synths are the backbone of all Tears For Fears’ work. The faintly funk-tinged guitars added to “Change” felt sour alongside a song about a souring relationship.
For the most part, Tears’ changes were subtle, allowing the band some experimentation among delivering the essentials. The best showcase of Tears’ musical maturity? A cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” stripped of its famed opening synth riff and slowed down to suit Orzabal’s smooth delivery. An unexpected treat, and a surprisingly light one from a band used to pulsing percussion and lyrics about primal scream therapy.
I wasn’t alive for a Tears For Fears show back in their hey day, so I can’t feasibly compare their current act to that of their original peak. I can, however, as a twentysomething regular concertgoer testify that the band translates better to the 21st century than I ever could have expected—especially since I grew to know them from a faded, beat up public library CD that no one ever seemed to want to check out. Unlike that beat up CD, the duo has withstood the years– and the bitter, late ‘80s until mid ‘00s breakup –pretty well. They still know how to command a crowd in perfect tandem, a definite must when pandering to a crowd mostly middle-aged and rabid with teenaged nostalgia, and I will forever be glad I got the chance to belt out “Shout” live as though I was there at the very beginning.