Boy George, Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Friday February 8th
“You came here tonight not knowing what to expect, and that’s what you’re going to get”, announced Boy George at the start of his show, midway through his first UK tour in a decade. “It’s an intimate show; it’s not X Factor. Do you like the hat?”
Perhaps in order to encourage that feeling of “intimacy”, the stage was stripped bare of all props, with no backdrops and no special lighting. George’s four piece band played a sparsely arranged, mostly acoustic-driven set, aided by two backing singers who occasionally provided lead vocals. A special mention was given to the drummer, who was playing his first night with the band after just a day’s rehearsal. Given George’s well-documented turbulent relationships with former drummers, one couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to the old one.
George has stated that the purpose of the tour is to “re-establish myself as an artist”, and to “re-establish my reputation as a human being, which I think has been pretty torn apart over the last few years.” Despite various recent run-ins with the law, and long periods away from the public spotlight, he still retains a special place in our affections, attracting a broad cross-section of ages and backgrounds in his audience. The goodwill was still there. All had to do now was deliver.
And here, unfortunately, is where the problem lay. Perhaps because of those long absences from stage performing, the O’Dowd pipes are not altogether what they used to be. Gone was the honeyed sweetness of his 1980s recordings, replaced by a gravely rasp which, although still not without soulful expressiveness, lacked both range and finesse. Far too many of his best known numbers were sung without reference to their original melodies, as George improvised awkwardly phrased harmony parts that, in terms of pitch, kept him safely within his comfort zone. (During Do You Really Want To Hurt Me and Karma Chameleon, the melodies were so comprehensively abandoned that the crowd struggled to sing along.) More annoyingly, he displayed an over-fondness for interrupting himself with a series of repetitively high pitched whoops, which added nothing to the interpretations.
This could simply have been down to lack of practice, but George betrayed more nervousness than his articulate, waspish public persona would have you believe. Perhaps he was simply scared of pushing for those higher and lower notes, having convinced himself that his voice was no longer up to the job? On the strength of last night’s show, the problems that we witnessed were nothing that a skilled vocal coach couldn’t help put right – provided that George is genuinely prepared to re-dedicate himself to his craft, and to put long, hard hours of work in.
That said, there were still flashes of the old brilliance, particularly towards the end of the set (two hours, with a badly timed interval after the first 35 minutes). A beautiful duet with Lizzy Dean on the old Culture Club ballad That’s The Way, backed by a solo piano, played to all his strengths, as did the gospel-flavoured rendition of the old civil rights anthem This Little Light Of Mine which followed.
Best of all, an unscripted final encore of Generations Of Love, as requested from the audience, was little short of dazzling. Fully warmed up by now, and singing on “extra time” purely for the love of it, George gave one of his finest compositions the performance it deserved, stepping to the front of the stage and singing out to the whole hall, instead of relying on the usual foot-shuffling and general diddling around.
All he needs to do now is build on those still remarkable strengths, and find the confidence to overcome his self-imposed weaknesses.