Heaven 17 – O2 Institute, Birmingham: Live Review

Heaven 17 finally make it to Birmingham again after the now obligatory postponements. I think the phrase ‘better late than never’ is extremely apt.

I was so eager to see this one I bought the ticket twice, something I didn’t realise until searching for the e-ticket beforehand: one purchased last year, and then again this, as, like so many shows, this is a rescheduled tour and I had forgotten. D’oh. But that was not enough to quell the anticipation as I trained and walked it to the newly dug up streets of Digbeth. In truth I was always more of a Heaven 17eener back in the day: the original Human League too “difficult” and then, as Ware and Marsh peeled off, Dare apart, the new band a little too “easy”. When Penthouse and Pavement came out in 1981, I had found the perfect solution, and Heaven 17 were my go to synth band for at least the next five years, a lifetime in those days. Now, 40 years on, this was a Greatest Hits tour and it did not disappoint.

But another treat came first, Pete Wylie, aka the Mighty Wah! With a small partisan section of the audience clearly rooting for him alone, as he shambled onto the stage they erupted. A decidedly odd and low-fi set ensued, almost endearingly, as he seemed to have issues from the start. He had problems tuning his guitar, promptly breaking a string, which bedevilled any useful capabilities to play it, not that he could stop fussing with it. In a white baseball cap, white denim jacket and voluminous baggy white pants and docs, and accompanied by his assistant “playing” a laptop, Ivan Seston, it all seemed a bit, appearance wise, like a bad Sleaford Mods tribute band. But kill that thought, as, low-fi or not, it was a delightful half hour. Kicking off with a ragged cover of Timmy Thomas’ Why Can’t We Live Together, as much as anything to break out his voice, he showed he still had it, with, glitches apart, glorious renditions of Come Back and Heart as Big as Liverpool. Whilst the backing music was all electronic, it was, he was at pains to say, all performed by him and him alone, and it worked well for the songs. A rumbling chord sequence then made itself apparent as being Heroes, his vocals now stretching a little, in preparation for the “hit”, Story of the Blues, which had all those of that age singing along. So everyone. A Johnny Thunders tune to close and he was off.

The Institute is an old methodist chapel, and is arranged in that style, the stage at the pulpit end, the large standing only floorspace where any pews may have been. Upstairs, on two levels, are seated balconies extending three sides around. With a capacity, overall, of, apparently, 1600, it was perhaps at 2/3 of that, which made for a pleasant throng. It can be hell when rammed, and it meant you could get to the bar without overmuch palaver, should your pockets stretch that deep. So, sufficiently restored, it was only a short break before the sounds of good old “difficult” Human League tune Introducing came wafting through the p.a.

As the stage lights went up, a curtain slowly undraped the back wall, resplendent in a garish backcloth, the band name across architectural designs. Two synthesisers on stage, one stage right, the other set slightly back, on a podium. Three microphone stands. Now down to the core of Martyn Ware and Glenn Gregory, since Ian Craig Marsh jumped ship around a decade ago, they are now augmented by two female backing vocalists Rachel Meadows and Hayley Williams, with Flo Sabeva on additional synthesiser duties. Ware took the front keyboard, Gregory in the middle, the two women to his other side, one of them hugely pregnant. No messing, it was straight into Height of the Fighting and they were off. Gregory swirled the mike stand all about him, as Ware chopped out stabs on his keyboard, and the two women sashayed in the time honoured. With the Hey La Hu chorus swelled by the combined vocal chords of the room, it was clear a good time was being definitely being asked of by all. And delivered, as Fascist Groove Thang and Crushed By the Wheels of Industry were dusted down both efficiently and effectively. Clearly this was a night mainly about their glory years, and little came from much anything after The Luxury Gap, bar a couple of songs from How Men Are.

Giving the audience what they came for, the slight lull of Play To Win and Geisha Boys and Temple Girls was followed by an incandescent Come Live With Me. “We are all reasonably of a similar age, yes”, said Gregory, ahead of some reminiscing around the collective Top of the Pops essential experience lived every Thursday evening, as he introduced Ware as his dad. “I’m not your father”, responded Ware, in full gaucho garb, from broad brimmed hat to boots, “that’s not what Mum says”, the quick reply. Altogether the stage banter was like this, lively, undoubtedly rehearsed yet, like all the praise for the “best audience yet”, compellingly believable. The two songs from How Men Are followed, together with one of the lesser songs from Penthouse and Pavement, another way to extenuate the cut and thrust of the ending salvo. This began with, in hindsight, the frankly ludicrous duet You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, Ware now also prancing the front, microphone in hand. On the night, however, wonderful, ahead of Let’s All Make a Bomb. With that blue touch paper lit, a majestic Let Me Go followed, Gregory insisting it their best song (and I wouldn’t argue.) The title track of Penthouse and Pavement next, the anticipation levels were high, knowing, one eye on the clock, what was coming next. Which it did, a deliciously extended run at Temptation, with a cheeky blast of Donna Summer’s Love To Love You thrown in for good measure. A magnificent performance, all credit due to the three singers.

Encores still being the fashion, I had my fingers crossed for their consummate version of Party Fears Two, offered on earlier shows on the tour. Sadly not tonight, it being the opportunity to play a different cover, namely of Bowie’s Let’s Dance, in a rousing Hi-NRG rendition, perhaps a better way to end this show, on a high. Being Bolied was the second encore, Ware playing the very same keyboard used on the original, all those years ago. I think a club night was to follow, the end point curfew of 10pm fairly strictly enforced and they were off. An early end to an evening but maybe that’s how us oldies like it these days.

Come back soon. With the Human League playing in a fortnight, albeit at thrice the price, and in the much larger Utilitas Arena, somehow I suspect this may well turn out to be the better evening.

You can check Heaven 17’s upcoming tour dates here; there are plenty on the schedule!

Take a listen to Temptation by Heaven 17 from 2013’s REWIND Festival for a flavour of the extended run at the classic.

Heaven 17: Website / Facebook / Twitter

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