While all you hipsters were at the Capitol Hill Block Party this weekend, I was across town at a completely. different. event. You had man buns, tattoos, ripped jeans. I had mini-vans, lawn chairs, and sensible khaki cargo shorts. To be fair, we both had to endure screaming crazies with drinks spilled down the front of their shirts. For you, frat boys. For me? Children.
Yes, I was at the Woodland Park Zoo for their annual summer concert series, a family tradition for Seattleites. Tonight's special guests were two artists with roots in the '80s, but not a lot more similarity than that. They both make you want to dance? Sure, that works.
All week long, I kept telling people General Public was opening the show. Oops, it was The English Beat. Same difference, because Dave Wakeling and company performed hits from both acts. Lynval Golding of The Specials came on stage to introduce them, declaring that he's lived in Seattle for the past eight years! What?! How did we not know this Jamaican-born UK musician was here now? He shouted that it's the best city in the world, and he's not wrong.
They opened with "Rough Rider" from The English Beat's 1980 debut, jumping to their cover of "Tears of a Clown" (with Wakeling joking, "Sorry, Smokey"). We got the hits "Tenderness" (GP) and "I Confess" (TEB). The band are smart: they stretch out the fan favorites by repeating the chorus over and over, allowing the audience to passionately sing along, like they sure did during the crowd-pleasing "Mirror in the Bathroom." Pretty smart.
A little history lesson, because I didn't really understand this myself: The Beat (they're only known as The English Beat in America) formed in 1978. They broke up in 1983, and half of the band became General Public, the other became the Fine Young Cannibals! (I never knew this!) Wakeling and his co-vocalist Ranking Roger were the constants in both bands. There was a dude with dreads on stage. Was that Ranking Roger? Nope, I looked it up later that night, and there's two versions of the band: The English Beat starring Dave Wakeling and The New English Beat feat. Ranking Roger. Did Wakeling and Roger have a falling out? A quick Google search assures me all is well: Wakeling has lived in California for over 20 years now, so he covers the U.S. while Roger represents in the UK. So, there you have it!
And, not to sound completely sheltered, but, I had forgotten: ska was a thing. Wakeling had a checkerboard guitar strap. They have their own vocabulary of "rude boys" and "skanking." What the hell is skanking? (Oh, it's a dance style; thanks, Google.) Stepping in for Roger is King Schascha, who would do "toasting." I had to look that up, too: it's a very fast sort-of talking that has roots in African tradition and Caribbean calypso. He's really fast; the only words I understood were "Wakeling" and "Seattle."
A little more of a history lesson, more for my benefit than yours, but apparently the '80s wave of ska emerged out of the UK as a way to combat and overcome the racial tensions going down at the time. It was really awesome to see that spirit lives on with the new line-up: not only is his new "toaster" an African American, but there were two Asians in the band, too. Diversity, fuck yeah!
Finally, my last question: is Fred Perry sponsoring this tour? Every member -- and there's like seven of them -- was wearing Perry. (Google couldn't help me with this one.)
The B-52's seem to play the zoo every summer, and they consistently put on fun shows. At this point, they have it down to a science. Vocalist Kate Pierson pointed out, "Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the band!" and I couldn't shake it. Forty years. This band has been together longer than a lot of my co-workers have been alive. They've lasted longer than most marriages. Forty years. Are they happy? Can you imagine singing "Rock Lobster" nearly every day of your life for forty years?
I'm worried about them. Co-vocalist Cindy Wilson wore jeans on stage. Jeans. This is The B-52's; you expect them to dress, y'know, wacky, like Pierson's Stevie Nicks meets Prince ensemble. Also, she didn't dance as much as Pierson, but I started to think she might've been sick. (She croaked on a few high notes here and there.) Are they still friends? Are they mad at each other? Do the band members hang out when they're not on tour, or is this just a job? Punch in, Planet Claire, punch out.
Original member and guitarist Keith Strickland is still in the band, but retired from touring in 2012. Maybe it was the striped t-shirt or the haircut, but at first glance, his fill-in looked like Ricky Wilson, the original guitarist and Cindy's brother (Strickland was on drums on those first albums). Ricky died tragically at the age of 32 due to complications related to AIDS. Watching the substitute guitarist play, I couldn't stop thinking about all the people we've lost too young, whether to AIDS or other terrible diseases. When Cindy moved across the stage to dance next to him, for some reason, I started crying, like a big weirdo. Who the fuck cries at a B-52's concert?! If she had performed "Give Me Back My Man," I would've really lost it. (Note: upon closer inspection, dude doesn't really look that much like Ricky, and I don't think Ricky ever made "guitar faces.")
The band did all the hits you would hope from them: "Love Shack," "Strobelight," "52 Girls," "Private Idaho," "Channel Z," "Roam," "Dance This Mess Around." I think the only curveball might be the title track from their 1982 EP Mesopotamia (which was produced by David Byrne actually, fun fact). The audience sang along loudly with every lyric, not like how it was with The English Beat, where they just shouted the chorus. Nope, we knew every lyric... except, when the band performed the 1992 single "Is That You Mo-Dean?" off the album Good Stuff, the only album that Cindy doesn't appear on. Awkward.
If 2017 is the band's 40th anniversary, then it's pretty much guaranteed they'll be back on the road, and maybe even back at the zoo next year. What surprises will they have in store for us? Will Keith return for one last tour? Will Cindy wear a dress? Will they perform nothing but rare b-sides or import-only album tracks? Or will it be an evening pretty similar to this one? I just hope, no matter what, that they're still having fun. Just ten more years, and they get the gold.
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