Hollywood Bowl, 8/25/2023 Words by Valerie Watson, images by A Rood Photography
Friends who went to the Culture Club/Berlin show at the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday, August 26th, raved about how great it was. I went on Friday.
The openers, Berlin featuring Terri Nunn with original members John Crawford and David Diamond, were thrilled to be there, and it was palpable. They performed a well-crafted set of their hits, plus a great cover of the Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary.” Terri’s feisty jaunt up to Promenade 1 to stand on a chair in box 1257 and belt to the upper levels was a high point, as was her duet with a sassy Crawford on “Sex (I’m a…)”
Then Culture Club — featuring Boy George with fellow original members Mikey Craig and Roy Hay—emerged, and a series of questionable decisions began to unfold, mostly involving song choice, song order, and tempo. You’ve got an amphitheater full of fans, many with long braids and fierce makeup, clad in neon and flat black hats, and you… kick things off with a lackluster go at “Sympathy For the Devil”? Boy George’s low energy and muddled patter suggested he thought his only job was to BE BOY GEORGE, which that night consisted of of wandering around, wearing marginally interesting clothes, and chuckling to himself. Maybe he needed the audience’s adoration to rev him up, but the audience needed his enthusiasm to rev them up. Result: Almost nobody was revved up.
The band played a total of 15 songs, 5 of which were covers. Slow, low-wattage songs were stacked together, eroding audience interest to the point where when songs they actually liked came around, they weren’t inclined to stand, sing along, or clap with any enthusiasm. I couldn’t help feeling that opening with a high-energy “Miss Me Blind” or “Church of the Poison Mind” might have laid down a base coat of goodwill for CC to start the show off right. Instead, after the lacking “Sympathy,” a mildly sassy “It’s a Miracle” and “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya” failed to get the crowd going.
The tepid response wasn’t enough to make the band switch things up, though. George swapped off lead vocals with backup singer Vangelis Polydorou—a former The Voice contestant who sounds more like George than he does—on George’s slow-paced solo song “Melodrama,” which led into a mellow ska cover of Bread’s “Everything I Own.” One lovely surprise: Amos “Captain Crucial” Pizzey, who recorded with Culture Club as a young teen, was in the front row, and George tossed him a mic so he could toast for eight bars.
Then came another slow tune, “All I Know (Let Things Go).” Absent some form of artistic jump-start (potentially involving Morrissey, who was name-checked but never made it onstage) Culture Club now needed to deliver a much-beloved hit like “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me.” The band came through… except it was SLOWED WAY DOWN, not for three lines but for THE FIRST THREE MINUTES. Even when a beat kicked in, it remained subdued. This is one of CC’s biggest fan favorites, so what does it say that nobody stood up, even when asked? A scan of the crowd revealed a few folks grooving down front, but a lot more throughout the venue who stayed seated, arms crossed or looking at their phones.
Good thing Lulu was there to duet on David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World.” The vibe soared with her solo turn on “To Sir With Love,” complete with still images from the Sidney Poitier film. Then she was gone, and Culture Club played “That’s the Way (I’m Only Trying to Help You),” another slow-tempo number that was less than a hit. The audience was so numb that even when “Church of the Poison Mind” rolled around, George’s calls for everyone to get on their feet were met with well-cemented indifference. A mini-cover of Wham!’s “I’m Your Man” midway through wasn’t even enough to goose the crowd. “Time (Clock of the Heart)” and “Miss Me Blind” both sounded good, but people had already started streaming for the exits. The exodus continued during the pre-encore break.
Those who remained needed a kick-ass encore. Instead, we got T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On).” Terri Nunn did her best to add interest, but the truth remained that it wasn’t a Culture Club hit, after a show that had been sorely deficient in well-rendered Culture Club hits. More people streamed out.
Then with unexpected verve and zest, Boy George said two “Hail Mary” words into the mic: “Karma Chameleon.” The crowd roared and leapt to their feet. The band’s spirited take was highly enjoyable. There was dancing, There was smiling, There was singing along. Lulu joined in, but she wasn’t the driving force for the audience’s cheer. It was that finally, after eighty-plus minutes of not much, they had been granted five minutes of wonderful.
Sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes it has to be.
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