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Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) + John Foxx and the Maths, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 29th April 2013

Tonight we’re at the delectable Symphony Hall in Brum. Refined, comfortable and cosy and a venue where you just know the sound will be stunning, we’re here to see some retro (and the new) from electro legend John Foxx and the Maths in support of OMD (aka Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark).

Tonight, greeted by the friendly and helpful Symphony Hall staff, we take our seats to wait for the first act. The stage is draped with a black backdrop, red, then green lights spiral the stage, dry ice emits to build atmosphere. To polite applause, on come John Foxx and the Maths. Foxx: “Good evening. Real pleasure to be here in this beautiful home that we will see if we can destroy for you tonight.” The trio of Foxx, Benge and Hannah Peel line up in front of synths plus electric drums, violins and gizmos.  The first song is very loud but soon into the set, the sound begins to balance.

Foxx is one of the pioneers of electronica.  He’s probably best recognised as the man who started Ultravox in ‘74, way before the 80’s commercial successes enjoyed by the band’s later incarnation. By ‘79, Ultravox! (with or without exclamation mark) had released 3 critically acclaimed albums and what became a major influence on a future generation of electronic musicians.  But Foxx chose to go solo releasing his first album ‘Metamatic’ in ‘80 and followed with three up to ‘85. Then a 12 year sabbatical since which he’s been totally prolific, releasing well over 20 albums and working with artists such as Harold Budd, Steve Jansen (Japan) and Robin Guthrie (Cocteau Twins) to name but a few.

And he’s still being pioneering. Foxx’s set tonight is indeed ‘the dark atmospheric side’ of the electronic sphere. Sound is better by the third song ‘Evergreen’ which has an infectious rhythm.  Then we get ‘No One Driving’, Summerland’ and ‘Running Man’ complete with strobe lighting and spiraling crescendo. Followed by ‘Burning Car’, ‘Catwalk’ and the finale, ‘Underpass’. Good reception as Foxx puts his hands in the air as the track slides out.  He’s clearly enjoyed it, as have the audience.

A comfy break in the bar and we return, the forty-something audience keen for the headliners. OMD were one amongst a number of bands formed in the late seventies. Some went to the dark side and mega success (note Depeche Mode and their 100 million album sales), others started indie or dark and traversed to the commercial side before finding it tough, going into hiatus and then finding they’re once again in vogue and coming back out. That’ll be OMD then.

Last time OMD played in Brum it was a soggy and cold night in November ’10. They were back after a fourteen years with their album ‘History of Modern’.  They’ve clearly got the bug back; three years on they are on an extensive worldwide tour with the follow up – ‘English Electric’ (released 8th April making #12 in the charts). Birmingham is first on their UK date list. And just in case you were wondering, the set will indeed include drippings of their classic hits.

The beat starts up and the audience clap and cheer: here come OMD in the form of Andy McCluskey, Paul Humphreys, Martin Cooper and Malcolm Holmes. First track ‘Metroland’ is a kinda, happy, clappy song. McCluskey’s has already started dancing frenetically.  McCluskey: “Good evening we are truly excited to be back here! [As clearly are the crowd] – it was a celebration 3 years ago! [Crowd: Huge cheer] Yes! You know we will play new ones but we may play some old ones – did you bring your dancing shoes put them on – are you ready?”

Next up ‘Messages’. You can question why some bands with hits from years past are out and about gigging, certainly when they haven’t been around for a while. When you ask why are OMD playing gigs there is a clear answer – ‘cos they are clearly having one hell of a blast! McCluskey grinning broadly: “This [gig] is not gonna disappoint – this is gonna be a good one!”

Everyone is dancing as we go into ‘Tesla Girls’. And just in case you weren’t: “ Are you all warmed up ‘cos the real dancing starts now! Follow me…” The hyper-energetic McCluskey leaps around the stage with the energy an individual half his age would struggle with. And he’s totally engaged with the audience, waving to people on the tiers and leaning down on the stage so a fan at the front can have his picture taken with him.

Then a slight break for McCluskey as he invites Paul Humphreys to take the vocal lead. As Humphreys comes to the front of the stage, knickers are thrown at him as he sings on ‘(Forever) Live and Die’ completed by a huge cheer from audience. Now, the ever-engaging McCluskey is back in charge. “We haven’t played this in the UK… this is the one hit we had in the US… [The sole American in the audience screams]… You’ll have to scream for everyone then okay?” as the band go into ‘If You Leave.’

And now we’re into the classics – ‘Souvenir,’ sung by Humphreys, receives a big cheer. Then, after ‘Night Cafe’ we’re into ‘Joan of Arc’; the audience clap along to the drumbeat, it echoes around the Symphony Hall. Bang on. Then the classic ‘Maid of Orleans’ led by a crash of drums; a track probably more powerful live now than when it was released.  McCluskey is doing his crazy dancing to white strobe lights all the way through. Pretty incredible and stand out track of the night for me. McCluskey claps the audience back. The band is clearly being blown away by the audience response.

Next song about what OMD write about – as McCluskey breathless explains  – missions in outer space: ‘Our System.’ Then it’s time to “Put your dancing shoes back on…” as we get the totally commercial sugar puff candy fluff OMD segment starting with ‘So in love?’ and ‘Sister Marie Says’, a song the furthest away from ‘Maid of Orleans’ in style as you can imagine. But it doesn’t matter the crowd still loves it. McCluskey addresses the ultra-high punters in the lofty grand high tiers “You can stand up and dance as long as you promise not to fall over the edge…”

‘Locomotion’ and we’re still dancing; McCluskey directs set lights so he can wave to every single member of the audience. “The drummer wants to go to sleep… Oh he’s fine, he’s only had 18 hrs sleep today …” as said drummer belts us into ‘Sailing the Seven Seas.’ And then to another iconic hit, probably the most upbeat and happiest song you’ll ever hear about nuclear war: ‘Enola Gay’. The last song of the main set.

Quick break and to the encore: “Oh we like playing here don’t we… before we made 2 albums this used to be our most recent song from ‘96 – good old fashioned audience participation required…”

And it’s the upbeat ‘Walking on the Milky Way’ with an acknowledgment to Brum half way through. Then to a song “we hardly ever play… last time in Birmingham probably at the Odeon in ‘86 – in memory of the Odeon being a rock venue…” and we’re into ‘Secret.’

“Thank you – we shall leave you with the oldest and fastest song that we have…” That’ll be ‘Electricity’ then.  The gig is completed to a rapturous applause.

Tonight’s gig at £32.50 is pretty much sold out and if you are a fan, well worth your hard earned pounds, they’re certainly one of the best live bands of their ilk out there. More than fair play to ‘em, OMD are well and truly still up for it and with a slick and professional set; they clearly are having one hell of a great time. Andy McCluskey had a reputation for dodgy arm swinging and is still leaping round the stage “dangerous dancing”. And when he starts, he doesn’t stop.

Sounds like you will have the opportunity to see them once again in the near future. If you were an OMD fan and like your electronica with a dabbing of candy-floss, the odd dark chocolate flake, the added bit of cheese and ‘dangerous’ dancing, and you want to go to a gig and come away with a totally uplifting feel good factor and a big fat grin on your face – go and dance your cotton socks off to OMD.

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OMD Setlist:

  1. Metroland
  2. Messages
  3. Tesla Girls
  4. Dresden
  5. History of the Modern (Part 1)
  6. (Forever) Live and Die
  7. If You Leave
  8. Souvenir
  9. Night Cafe
  10. Joan of Arc
  11. Maid of Orleans
  12. Our System
  13. Kissing the Machine
  14. So In Love
  15. Sister Marie Says
  16. Locomotion
  17. Sailing the Seven Seas
  18. Enola Gay

Encore:

  1. Walking on the Milky Way
  2. Secret
  3. Electricity

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John Foxx & the Maths Setlist:

  1. Evidence
  2. He’s a Liquid
  3. Evergreen
  4. No-one Driving
  5. Summerland
  6. Running Man
  7. Burning Car
  8. Catwalk
  9. Underpass

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Listening:

Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark [1980]

Organisation [1980]

Architecture & Morality [1981]

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Review for Gig Junkies. Pictures: Ken Harrison.