Review by Lydia Fitzer Photos Courtesy of Hush PR

I’d been planning on having a quiet night in, to be honest. It’s been a busy couple of weeks and a relaxed Friday of Netflix and wine would’ve been a nice detox. Obviously, though, how could I pass up the chance to see Culture Club? I don’t think I’d be able to resist the opportunity of seeing someone even half as iconic as Boy George on stage. A couple of times earlier in the day I mentioned that I’m going to see Culture Club – cue the widening of eyes and sharp intake of breath. Even my taxi driver was impressed.

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“Where are you off to, then?”

“I’m going to see Culture Club at the Arena.”

“Hm?”

“You know, Boy George’s band.”

“Wait, the Boy George?!” You know it’s serious when someone’s name has an exclaimed “the” in front of it.

Culture Club are touring to celebrate their first new album in 19 years, ‘Life’ (2018). I would say that it’s really excellent, but in this instance I’m going to borrow a favourite phrase of one of my friends; “It low-key bangs”. Deceptively simple on the surface, but with a range of influences and a brilliance which masks its complexity. Relaxing to a listener, but with themes of real significance and emotion. Easy to listen and easy to love.

One of the inspirations for ‘Life’ is Boy George’s recovery from addiction – he is eleven years sober. What could be a purer way to celebrate this than to invite Addaction to be the official charity partner for the tour? I’m fortunate enough to be seated right in the middle of the Addaction staff, who come bearing donation buckets and copious amounts of facial glitter. They work with people affected by drugs, alcohol and mental health problems across England and Scotland. They will have a presence at every stop of Culture Club’s tour – if you’re going to one of the shows, grab them and say hi! If you need help or advice for yourself or a loved one, check out their website.

‘Life’ is shiny and new, but tonight is also inevitably a celebration of the 80s. Truly, no-one is channelling the 80s more than Tom Bailey. While he’s not touring with other members of Thompson Twins, he is performing Thompson Twins songs. He and his band are in all white, bringing unapologetic retro flair and buckets of energy. The band are slick and funky, while Bailey himself dances and springs across the stage. His vocal may not be the strongest I’ve heard, but he makes up for it with pure enthusiasm and showmanship. The crowd are totally drawn in. The energy, the endlessly varied lighting display, the old favourite songs… It’s a perfect recipe for entertainment. Bailey wields a guitar for ‘Lay Your Hands On Me’ and jumps across the stage like a magical pop kangaroo. The performance gives a massive sound with a memorable melody – the ideal lead-in to the next song.

The crowd rumbles with appreciation at the introduction; “Doctor, Doctor, can’t you see I’m burnin’, burnin’? Is this love I’m feelin’?” What a tune! This is ‘Doctor! Doctor!’ from the Thompson Twins’ 1985 album ‘Into The Gap’. Blinding lights fan across the crowd, then land on Bailey. The production is overstated and glorious. Bailey concludes the song with the line, “Doctor, Doctor, everyone in Birmingham tonight, thank you, thank you! Goodbye!”

We’re promised one more song. It is, of course, ‘Hold Me Now’, another from ‘Into The Gap’ and arguably Thompson Twins’ most popular song. The whole venue is suddenly transformed by two giant disco balls. It’s like being inside a glittering snowglobe. The audience is on their feet clapping, all the way to the back of the room. (If you’ve been to the Arena, formerly NIA/Barclaycard Arena, you know just how far back that is.) This is an excellent crowdpleaser performed to a wonderful crowd. The whole room sings along to the chorus. The instrumental stops. Bailey and the crowd continue to sing and clap together. The venue is resonant with hundreds of voices. Bailey and his band exit to raptures.

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There’s a twenty minute interval involving a mad dash to beat the queues for toilets and bars (unless you move at a brisk jog, you’ll be waiting to buy your beer for the entire interval). It’s time for Belinda Carlisle to perform. She marches onto stage and blasts into ‘Live Your Life Be Free’, the title track of her fourth solo album from 1991. She has a strong, pleasant alto voice which she uses very well – I can hear her project through the diaphragm, giving her a lovely depth. She moves across the stage with ease.

Carlisle gives a strong performance, although after Bailey’s set Carlisle’s stoic backing band and simple lighting verge on being underwhelming by comparison. Still, she gives a huge sound. Her big, repetitive melodies are easy to sing along to with gusto.

She asks everyone to sing along to her final song, and it would be difficult not to. Oh, baby, do you know what that’s worth? Her last song has to be ‘Heaven Is a Place on Earth’. The lyrics reverberate through the mouths of the crowd. She leaves the stage as her guitarists continue to play, building a fantastic final wave of noise.

One more interval, then it’s finally time for what we’ve all been waiting for. The lights go down. Stairs have appeared on the stage. An opening video with universe and spirituality themes plays. Boy George’s image phases in and out, then we’re looking directly into his eye. There are rumbling vibrations and fanning lights. A silhouette emerges in front of the screen. The crowd wails – the outline of Mikey Craig (bassist) needs no introduction.

Boy George appears on the stairs last, and Culture Club begin the sexy moody thrum of ‘God & Love’. George’s voice is like an autumn leaf. By that, I mean that his voice is more beautiful than it’s ever been. He has a gentle huskiness that makes me imagine the sound of leaves rustling on the pavement. He has developed a richness and depth which only comes to really gifted vocalists, and has gained a level of vocal control which only comes from years of practise. On top of that, he has a soulfulness which only comes from within.

‘God & Love’ is the first track of ‘Life’, and is a gorgeous opening to the set. Visually, it’s interesting to watch. The accompanying video is hallucinogenic, hypnotic and meditative all at once. This isn’t just a show – this is an art exhibition.

“Good evening, Birmingham! We are Culture Club. A living, breathing soap opera.” They go on to play a jaunty, jazzy rendition of the 1983 single ‘It’s a Miracle’, followed by another track from ‘Life’: ‘Let Somebody Love You’. This one has reggae vibes all over it. It’s pure sunshine and shimmer.

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The stage is filled with the band, backing singers and pure style. George tells us to “dress like every day is Hallowe’en! At least one of us kept that promise”. If he means that he dressed as fabulously as possible, then that’s certainly correct. I’m not working alongside a photographer tonight, as apparently George has become a little camera-shy. That may be so, but he’s more glamorous than I’ve ever been in my entire life. He’s rocking his signature eye makeup, a white hat with patterns inspired by the ‘Life’ cover art, and the most magnificent long black jacket with gold tassels. Everyone else on stage looks great, but Boy George is a walking masterpiece, as always. For himself and for the rest of Culture Club, it’s all about individuality. George is the perfect idol for anyone who champions self-expression, diversity and difference. As he says, “We are a one-stop shop for anyone who thinks they’re weird!”

Inevitably we go back to where it all started – 1982 and the release of ‘Do You Really Want To Hurt Me’. It was Culture Club’s first number one, and marks the proper beginning of their becoming a vital part of musical history. George mentions that performing it has become something of a spiritual experience. I can understand that; knowing that I’m about to hear it live makes me feel as though I’m on sacred ground. The lights go down, and a pink aura illuminates the stage. The backing singers and George perform the first notes yearnfully. The lights change abruptly, and the sound jerks into the melody we know and love.

This is followed by an emotional rendition of ‘Victims’, from the 1983 album ‘Colour By Numbers’. This is the one that has been repeatedly requested by audiences, and it’s beautiful. It’s the most beautiful that I’ve ever heard it, because George’s voice has grown in such an astonishing way.

They finish the set with an incredible performance of ‘Church Of The Poison Mind’ which makes me want to strut across a light-up dance floor in platform boots. Partway through it turns into a cover of ‘I’m Your Man’ by Wham! The whole venue is a party. George and the unbelievable backing singers give the vocals of their lives, while old clips of Culture Club play and remind us how iconic they are – as if we didn’t already know! They wave casually as they leave the stage, as if they’re unaware that they’ve just blown our tiny minds.

They return for an encore, and Boy George has switched to a silver sparkly hat! (If he could get in touch and let me know where he gets his hats, that would be awesome.) He talks about his family being in the audience, including his Mum. This leads in to ‘Life’, the title track from the newest album. It’s very gospel, and has an incredible amount of soul. Every member of the audience feels it. People hold up their phone lights, and the room blazes with stars.

Culture Club crack back into party mode after this, with a cover of ‘Let’s Dance’ that would make Bowie incredibly proud. They do a cover of T. Rex’s ‘Get It On’ that has me smiling as if my face could break. The setlist is amazing; perfectly calculated to create maximum love and party feel. ‘Get It On’ has a massive finale. How can they top it?

They can top it with ‘Karma Chameleon’, of course. Another from the album ‘Colour By Numbers’, it’s so familiar yet rings so new and sparkly in my ears. Culture Club’s set is as close to a perfect show as I’ve ever seen. As I leave, my head is full of colours – red, gold and green.

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