You can’t do synth pop with a mandolin, guitar and violin. You just can’t. You can do fiddly-diddly-dee folk music but you cannot do synth pop. It can’t work. Surely.
Or can it?
This concert was supposed to be taking place in Coronation Hall, Maori Hill, just a couple of blocks from home. The hall that was one of the homes of the ‘Dunedin Sound’ of the 1980s. The hall, more importantly, where my younglings have their school assemblies. Midge Ure was supposed to be performing on the very same stage where my sproglets perform their end of year shows. But no, apparently due to fears that the building is not 100% earthquake-proof, the concert has been moved to the Mayfair in grotty South D. It is still deemed safe enough for 200 primary school children to attend weekly assembly there though(!)
Ultravox’s ‘The Collection’ was one of the first albums I ever owned (on cassette, obvs) and I have always been a big fan – I love a good bit of synth-pop but I always thought Ultravox were slightly above the rest, that little bit more edgy, due to the greater prominence of the guitar. I have a passing acquaintance with the album material but I’m really only truly enamoured of the ‘hits’, of which there are thankfully a great number. If truth be told, I would probably not be going anywhere near a Midge Ure concert if I were still a Londoner. Ultravox, yes, Ure no. Needs must, however. This tour is billed as ‘Something From Everything’ so I’m guessing we’ll have to put up with recent releases as well as solo efforts before we get to the classic early 80s stuff. No matter though, I am intrigued.
So, The Princess By-Tor and I only got back from an exhausting weekend on the Gold Coast at 2 o’clock this morning, and neither of us is particularly up for going out, it has to be said. We drag ourselves down to the shabby Mayfair theatre though, whose prime years are a good deal nearer the beginning of the last century than the beginning of this one. It’s actually not a bad little theatre though, we’ve seen Ross Noble here, plus a number of low grade holiday entertainment shows for children. It’s 75% full tonight, and we are certainly at the younger end of the demographic. It’s somewhat disconcerting to learn that I now attend concerts where the average age of the crowd is 50+ and the average clothing colour is beige. This crowd (myself and the Mrs excepted, of course) would not have looked out of place at the recent Daniel O’Donnell show at the Regent. To add insult to injury, an usher appeared in the auditorium just before show-time selling ice creams. How very not rock’n’roll.
We’re second row, right in the middle, so about 10ft from the mic stand so we’ll get a good close look at the wee old bugger if nothing else. The lights go down and a couple of young fellas wander self-consciously on stage. Is this the support act, or Mister Ure’s backing band? Well, it turns out to be both in fact – a couple of young English blokes going by the name of India Electric Co. armed with an acoustic guitar, violin and a keyboard. Their style is quite eclectic, the violin gives it a folksy feel but there is a definite worldy jazzy lilt to it as well. The synth offers a plinky plonky piano sound rather reminiscent of Ludovico Einaudi and the whole sound is satisfyingly full for a duo. The singer, whose dancing style is a Joe Cocker/Lorde mashup, has an incredible voice, hitting some really quite high notes with unbelievable accuracy, warmth and clarity but the star of the show, for me, is the violinist who is clearly way more than a folk fiddler, he’s classically trained for sure. Their songs are quite poignant, lyrically, touching subjects like refugees and alienation and the half hour set veritably shoots by. Off they nip to a round of restrained and polite applause, and after 10 minutes they take the stage once again, followed shortly afterwards to rapturous (but again very polite) by the man himself, dressed all in black. He’s not in bad shape for a man in his 60s, bald as a cue ball but has aged pretty well.
There is no drum kit. I was hoping there might have been one hiding behind the curtain but no, it appears we are pretty much getting Ultravox Unplugged tonight, as he is armed only with an acoustic, no Stratocaster in sight. His band mates take their positions, armed with a mandolin and a violin. This is going to be fucking weird. The violin and mandolin were never mainstays in the synthpop era, I’m sure of it. What the fuck is he going to do with this lot?
The first song is a recent(ish) solo number called ‘Star Crossed’ (possibly?) and I have to say, the sound is incredible. The violin works very well as a substitute synth, especially as it is being piped through several effects pedals. The mandolin is quite low in the mix, nothing more than a rhythm accompaniment, but Midge’s guitar is beautiful, clear as a bell. His voice though, fucking wow man. The little guy can really sing – I’ve seen some singers in my time and he’s up there with the best of them. He claims to be suffering from a cold, but it doesn’t matter one iota as he hits all his notes with sniper-like accuracy. It’s just like listening to the CD (or cassette in my case).
One thing you notice early on about Midge Ure is that he loves talking as much as loves playing. He stops for a natter between pretty much every song and he’s quite the comedy genius. He spends time explaining the inspiration behind each song, behind the tour, behind the band and comes across as a genuine, genial all round sort of a good bloke. I overheard someone in the row in front talking about how they’d met him earlier and what a nice guy he was.
‘I Remember’ (from Rage in Eden) is the first Ultravox oldie to come up, and although it’s not a favourite of mine, it sounds damn good tonight. Not so keen on ‘If I Was’ but I never was particularly. ‘Flow’ from the reformed Ultravox album (which I’ve never heard before) sounds pretty good but it’s not until the opening bars of ‘The Voice’ that things really get going. I am a little disappointed – it’s one of my favourites from back in the day, but it doesn’t really work in this format. As you would expect, he ploughs through the recent stuff first, saving the hits for last. Lament is the standout (it really does work in this format), and although I’ve never been a real fan of ‘Vienna’, tonight’s rendition is outstanding, mainly due to the violin solo. If you had asked me to name an Ultravox song that had violin in it I would probably have looked rather blankly at you but of course, now I hear it, it does have a violin (or is it cello?) solo. A quite big one. And this violinist absolutely nails the fucker. The biggest applause of the evening so far, for that bit. Visage are represented by ‘The Damned Don’t Cry’ and ‘Fade To Grey’, and in amongst it all we also get ‘Hymn’ and ‘Reap The Wild Wind’. I expect he threw in a Rich Kids song but I don’t really know them, bar a little last minute swotting on Spotify. ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’ is the single encore song, and then he’s off (at a very respectable 10:45, allowing those of us with babysitters to nip off quickly).
This evening had the potential to be a hideously embarrassing ‘singalong-a-tribute-act’, the last desperate act of a man clinging on to past glories, but it definitely is not. Some songs worked better than others, undoubtedly, but overall it’s a triumph, an almost ingenious reworking of some classics in a new style. It really shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. I mean, who would ever think of trying to do synthpop with a mandolin and a violin?
I’ve never seen the real Ultravox and I suppose I never will, but this is pretty much the next best thing.