After years of listening to pallid performances of this song, never my favorite H17 number to start with, it really comes to life in the hands of this lineup. Never mind the fact that I much prefer the voice of Billie Godfrey to Josie James on the original. At the bridge where the breakdown occurs, it’s a rhythm section orgy as Crampton locks into blistering syncopation with drummer Al Anderson on the electric kit. frankly, this tune has never sounded better than it did here. Then the first curve ball the band were throwing that night knocked me for a loop.
“Heaven 17 Unplugged…
it’d just be really quiet, wouldn’t it?” – Glenn Gregory
Glenn Gregory next brought an acoustic guitar out and proceeded to play and sing an unexpectedly tender rendition of “Geisha Boys + Temple Girls” that I was completely unprepared for. And it worked superbly. Only Ms. Godfrey joined him on vocals. I guess that old line about a song being measured by how it sounds on an acoustic guitar is no bill of goods. With acoustic still in hand, the next song was a cheeky stab at The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” led with an audience sing-along! I saw it on the back cover and was immediately intrigued, but never expected this. When they hit the chorus, one can hear Martyn Ware really belting with gusto. He can do that now. It’s all water under the bridge, and the point of sales on the next album he and Ian Marsh got for letting Phil Oakey keep the Human League name when they split might also have something to do with it.
The next two tracks benefitted from Bennett’s guitar work. “[We Don’t Need This] Fascist Groove Thang” was the recipient of some tight rhythm guitar licks and “Let’s All Make A Bomb” received an injection of guitar filigree that it never previously had, and was all the better for it. Then came the most vivid example of what this band were capable of live. “Soul Warfare” was again, never a favorite on album, but with this band at the helm, it pops out of the speakers with a sonic heft and visceral power that finally does its forays into Latin syncopation justice. The groove here just will not quit! Crampton and Anderson were on fire. The vocals benefitted from great three-part harmonies by Ware, Gregory, and Godfrey, but ultimately the star here was bassist Crampton. He was given almost a full minute for his massive, concluding bass solo; the latter half of which was deliciously flanged for even greater impact. The result is a transformation of this tune into a show stopper.
The program dove next into a fantastic series of deep cuts that I’d call showing off if it didn’t bring me so much pleasure to hear. “B.E.F.’s “Wichita Lineman,” which long has been a favorite, has never sounded better that it did here! It’s not just my opinion. Judging from the blissed out look on his face playing this, Martyn Ware just might agree! Anderson’s monolothic drumming prefectly evokes the original drum track, but there are some changes here. Not the least of which is the introduction of Bennet’s twangy guitar chords into the mix; bringing the song a half-step back to its Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb roots. But the synths still manage to win out in the end. When viewing the DVD, I was flabbergasted to see that the dissonant glitch element in the song’s magnificent extended coda [so much better than the album version] was actually Ware playing a Theremin! Gregory added his acoustic and Bennet dirtied his tone for the heart-wrenching final fade. The result is simply a magnificent version of a magnificent song.
“And That’s No Lie” was another song that never did too much for me. I thought that the ten minute album version felt like filler. On what was to my ears, an already weak album. The shorter [!] 12” mix helped, but ultimately ,the 7” edit was my favorite version of this song. Until now. The 6:30 live version here bloomed into vibrant life with this band! The soul sophistication inherent in the number was finally given the juice that it needed to rise above its strictly Fairlight/Linn Drum beginnings. The tune breathes now and it manages to get a head of steam that I never felt before.
2005’s “Before After” was a weak Heaven 17 album for me. The songs seemed okay enough, but they lacked something …in addition to any political content, which was strictly absent. “I’m Gonna Make You Fall In Love With Me” was a thrashing disco number that by rights, should have done more for me than it did, but wow – hearing this band tackle this tune live was a revelation! Instead of plug-in bass synth and a wah-wah loop, Crampton and Bennett dig their teeth deep into the neck of this song and it attains a scorching flashpoint of energy that completely transforms it into a funky disco bomb that explodes into technicolor life here! The song actually becomes a duet between Glenn Gregory and Billie Godfrey as well, and she bites deep into this one to make the pallid album version a distant memory. She exudes a sizzling sass that really pushes the song further out along with the band and when it culminates in a white hot cold ending it’s all I can do to exclaim “¡Mamacita!” This number now slays.
Another deep cut gained new life next when “Dive,” the brilliant opener of the criminally under heard “Bigger Than America” album got aired in a radically new piano arrangement. The original song was a favorite, but the cocktail version here with Crampton and Bennett adding slight hints of guitar and bass to round out the sound a tad, is amazing primarily for Gregory’s fantastic vocals. Singing out live has done wonders for his instrument, and when he concludes the tender tune, he’s changed the ending to take the final evocation of the title down an octave just once, without any of the repetition of the album version. It’s a pure goose-pimple moment that gets me every time. Outstanding!
“Let’s go back to the days of Futurism!” – Martyn Ware
With those words of Martyn Ware, they trotted out the big guns and any remaining stops were pulled out. First, “The Black Hit Of Space” will always be my favorite Human League song, and while the song probably relied more on the Fantom’s memory banks than much on offer here, it still gained something that can only come of live performance. Even then, there were surprises afoot when Crampton strapped on a keytar synth for the now enhanced synth bass line and Bennett added guitar squeal to the unforgettable noiseshriek introduction to the song. Anderson’s drum pads flawlessly replicated the original hard, thwacking rhythm track. This was a vital reminder of the original Human League’s Radiophonic Workshop glory at full bore, and I sincerely hope that one day Ware gets his wish to do a whole show of this material. I have two kidneys. I could afford to go!
After that uncompromising track, the single “Come Live With Me” appeared. It should have been anticlimactic as the ballad was never a go-to track for me, but that did not take into account Gregory’s insanely great singing, where he makes me hold my breath involuntarily on the stunning outro. It starts at a high level of accomplishment and then climbs the mountain to vistas of startling perfection. His singing here was simply jaw-dropping. “Let Me Go” followed and did so brilliantly. This has long been a favorite single by the band and like any song here, Julian Crampton’s flanged bass made me sit up and take notice of the luscious sound that this band were offering.
Then it was “time for Temptation.” The band have long since performed the [superior] Brothers In Rhythm 1992 arrangement. I’ll maintain that I’ve never heard the song better than on this album! What this band bring to the table cannot be underestimated. First of all, the guitar lines are actually being played by Bennett, then the vocal intro is now a duet between Godfrey and Ware, who handles the “love energy” counterpoint against the “higher and higher” mantra that Godfrey takes up to the skies. Then, my jaw dropped when they kicked the extended intro into high-nrg Moroderspace with Crampton nailing the sequencer line from “I Feel Love” on bass with Ware and Gregory singing the “Love To Love You Baby” refrain in falsetto to brain-melting effect. They maintained this energy for the better part of a minute before moving on with the song. I was so happy that it was more than two bars worth, let me tell you!
Then, when the drop occurred, it was time for the familiar portion of the song to unfurl, but when Ms. Billie Godfrey is in effect singing the lead on it in her inimitable fashion, then all we can do is gape in wonder as a voice with no seeming limits takes this tune into the stratosphere! I have never liked Carol Kenyon’s original vocals on “Temptation.” They always seemed shrill to me. Ms. Godfrey has a suitably piercing instrument, but her tone was rounder here, and beyond palatable; it was delightful. I now have to consider this live recording of the song to be my go-to version. Knowing how much I worship at the altar of the demo version; this is a real statement of sea-change coming from me.
After that, what else could they do but perform “Being Boiled?” Crampton once again donned the keytar synth and did honors on this one; puckishly bending the pitch in the song’s intro as if to say “wait, I’ll make it better!” This time, it was Mr. Ware’s time to shine as he was jamming on the famous “Boys of Buddha” synth horn solo like there was no tomorrow. Then, with the climactic “Listen to the voice of Buddha” it was over. And I was floored. Everything I ever loved about H17 was present in this concert and kicked up in feeling and intensity many, many notches. Everything I was less than enthusiastic about was lovingly buffed and re-thought and made anew into cherished songs and performances. Then they delivered things I didn’t know I even wanted [Heaven 17 …acoustic…?] in a cornucopia of abundance! Quite simply, this is now my favorite Heaven 17 album!
“What an amazing gig!” – Martyn Ware
It cherry picked from the acme of both the H17 and Human League canon to deliver a créme-de-la-créme set list that effectively makes this a desert island disc for both groups. It is simply thrilling to this longtime H17 fan and I am astonished at what they now accomplish live. Okay, so they hedge their bets with the Roland Fantom, but aside from idiosyncratic synth tracks taken from the dawn of time, a bit of percussion here and there, or a snatch of strings during Billie Godfrey’s solos on “Temptation,” this is now a vital performing juggernaut of a band with only a scant need for backing tracks. With Crampton aboard, they are treading on hallowed Simple Minds live performing territory. I tend to single him out because I’m all about the bass, but really, the band they’ve assembled is incredible.
They’ve been busy building it for the last five years, dating back to the “Penthouse + Pavement” 30th anniversary tour, and they seem to be using them consistently across the years. Better still, the new single has Crampton’s playing on it and that’s what I am salivating over; the notion of this band getting it down on ones and zeros in the studio on the album currently being made. The new material is fantastic. The players are at the top of their form, and Ware and Gregory have never been better. The last B.E.F. album and the pre-release single show Ware at the top of his arranging game. I simply cannot wait for the next Heaven 17 album based on the evidence my ears are hearing.
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