Our second Heaven 17 show while in the UK for other reasons was more of a rendezvous (… with destiny!) than a planned evening out, though we had gotten tickets to the first gig we saw (see Friday’s entry) before we left Canada. We had other business that would bring us to Birmingham (two times, as it turned out), and the dates coincided with another (and very different) show than the one we saw in London, so we plumped for the VIP tickets on offer for this one, billed as a double bill of sorts: a celebration of the 35th anniversary (!!) of Penthouse & Pavement, with the band playing the entire album straight through, and then … then! … a British Electric Foundation show for the second half, with special guests singing specially-picked covers (and more) backed by Ware and the rest of the band. This was, to the best of my knowledge, the first time Heaven 17 had ever done the entire P&P album straight through live, and this tour was the first B.E.F. tour ever. This was an occasion, and the moment you saw the magnificent Birmingham Town Hall, you knew you were in for something special.
A quick side note about the venue: it was designed to be a virtual copy of the Temple of Castor & Pollux in the Roman Forum, and was built from 1832–1834, and renovated from 2002–2007. We had actually been in this magnificent and large venue earlier in the month, to see Petula Clark (!!!) — our first visit to Birmingham on this trip had covered a couple of days, and we discovered Ms. Clark was performing quite by accident. Mouths agape at the very possibility, we quickly secured tickets online. She was a month away from 83 at the time, with a standard nightclub-type band in tow, and she absolutely killed it all evening, with all her classics, a few covers (including some recent hit songs), and a few tales of her life and the songs that defined her career. A show you didn’t want to end. Following that magical evening, we resumed our travels, and by the time the 21st rolled around, we had to take a train from Bath to Birmingham to get to this second concert.
Due to an afternoon nap, we got there just 20 minutes before the show started promptly at 8pm, but shortly discovered that the “Meet and Greet” period covered in our VIP tickets had already happened! Heartbroken, we were busy cursing ourselves at the ticket counter when a security person came over (perhaps detecting that we weren’t from around there) and kindly offered to go talk to the road manager about our situation. We waited nervously, as the show was due to begin soon. He reappeared with the band’s manager, who reassured us that he would get our swag bags together at the intermission, and “figure out something” after the show. Not really believing this would work out well, and still kicking ourselves for not realizing the meet-n-greet would of course take place before the show, we looked at our tickets … and discovered we were in the very first row, just seven seats in from stage left.
Now this was both a good and a bad thing: we were inches away from the stage, but also inches away from the amp stack. Had this been your typical rock concert, this would have done some permanent damage, but to our delight — despite being quite loud — we retained our hearing well enough to chat with fellow audience members during the H17/BEF switchover, with no ringing in our ears afterward. Again, the advantages of good-quality sound engineers and synthpop bands, my friends.
After some pleasant house music, Wendy Carlos’ theme to A Clockwork Orange and the dimming of the lights told us the show was about to begin. The band entered, said a few words of greeting to the vastly larger crowd (they did not, surprisingly, almost completely fill the place like Petula Clark did — but I’d guess about 650–700 people attended out of a just-over-1,000 capacity). it was at least twice as many people as the Camden gig, but we were actually even closer this time than we were at that much more intimate venue.
The playlist for the first half was, as promised, the entirety of the Penthouse & Pavement album, starting with “Fascist Groove Thing.” Ahead of starting the song, Ware repeated — but slightly toned down — his political remarks about the relevance of the song for this crowd. In Camden, he had included a short speech about the folly of Brexit and that immigrants and refugees were welcome in Britain, which went over well there (a Labour Party town is Camden, apparently). Glenn Gregory was again in magnificent voice — he’s frankly a better singer today that he ever was, though he was always a great talent in this regard — and the very mild changes in arrangements to accommodate the loss of a bassist of the calibre of John Wilson and the gain of Godfrey, Scott, and Mosleh all served up superb and updated renditions of the entire classic record, with some extra touches informed by their extra singers and more recent work. The video below (shot by someone on the opposite side of the stage from us at the gig) shows off what I mean:
There was a wonderfully humourous moment following “Soul Warfare” where Ware noted it was time to “flip the record over,” which got a huge laugh. Moments later, the exquisite intro to “Geisha Boys and Temple Girls” kicked off Side Two. A highlight for me, of course, was “The Height of the Fighting,” which was better than the original recorded version to these ears. As there was no “infinite groove” in a live setting, Ware and Gregory settled for merely repeating “for a very long time” only about a half-dozen times before ending the set to rapt applause. The band, to my surprise (given there was another half to go) left and then came out for an encore, performing the Human League version of “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” again, with the introduction about Ware’s time in the band intact (minus a couple of Phil Oakey jabs). We adjourned to intermission to find out the state of our swag package.
True to his word, we were presented with our VIP goodies: a signed copy of the new single (“Unseen” b/w “Captured”), a photo of Ware and Gregory, a copy of the tour poster, and the lovely program book, all presented in a high-quality, clasping H17 tote bag. I augmented mine further by taking advantage of the merch table to buy a copy of “Live at the Jazz Cafe 2015,” knowing (thanks in part to the Monk!) that it was only available at live events and off their website. The manager told us we could meet with the band after the show, and to meet him back in the lobby at the end. Absolutely thrilled, we headed back in for the most special part of the evening: a live B.E.F. concert!
Next time: Special Guests!