Boy George & Culture Club sounded both nostalgic and fresh at the Sony Centre

It felt like a return to the 80s for the new wave legends, but it wasn't just a throwback


BOY GEORGE & CULTURE CLUB with TOM BAILEY at the Sony Centre, Friday, August 24. Rating: NNNN


Cell phones lit up the Sony Centre as Boy George & Culture Club headlined a night of 80s nostalgia that felt re-imagined for today, not doggedly throwback.

Thomson Twins’ Tom Bailey, of 80s hits Doctor! Doctor!, Hold Me Now and We Are Detective, was the perfect opening act. Bailey’s voice hasn’t aged a bit. He moved between the guitar and his quintessential 80s synthesizer, and his music still sounded fresh. And the fluorescent geographic prints in hues of greens, pinks and oranges were just the right retro touch to evoke a decade of big hair, jelly bangles and acid wash jeans.

The crowd was sprinkled with vintage concert tees, and a couple of fans showed up in head-to-toe Boy George dress circa 1982. The 80s theme continued into the interlude, which included a soundtrack of Bananarama and UB40.

Heavy draped curtains, strobe lights of turquoise, fuchsia and purple were the perfect opulent set up for a band as known for their look as their sound. Now billed as Boy George & Culture Club, it was the original lineup of Roy Hay, Mikey Craig and Jon Moss, who have clearly survived the 80s well. 

Boy George has long since brushed aside the drug and legal issues that made him a tabloid spectacle in the 90s, becoming famous again for all the right reasons. He’s a judge on the UK version of The Voice, he’s been a guest host on The Talk, and even made some glammy cameos on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

It’s the right time for a Culture Club comeback, and the audience took to their feet, screaming and clapping uproariously the minute they took the stage. The original members were supported by a stellar live band that included four backup singers (including one of his former contestants from The Voice), two drummers, a bouncing harmonica player that performed as if he were in a mosh pit, and a sax and keyboard player, which created a vibrant live sound. They gracefully avoided sounding like dated 80s reggae-pop by infusing their iconic tracks with jazzy flourishes, all the while maintaining enough familiarity to allow fans to sing along.

“This is a much better reception than what I got a customs,” Boy George said with a chuckle, after kicking off the show with David Bowie’s Let’s Dance (he later closed the show with a nod to another iconic Brit, Robert Palmer’s Addicted To Love). He explained that Canada’s customs were not impressed by the singer’s luggage full of hats, but he surmised that it was better than his 1980s customs experience in which his famous multi-coloured extensions were torn out.

Culture Club has a deep catalogue of punk/funk/soul/reggae hits that reflected Boy George’s escape (as he put it) “from suburbia straight into the disco.” He was charismatic and playful – often indulging in one-legged whine ups – and more free-spirited than his solo 2014 Danforth Music Hall show in which he scolded fans for chanting requests. This time he happily indulged those requests, singing hit after hit: I’ll Tumble 4 Ya (featuring a fantastic percussion solo), Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?, a sax-led Time (Clock Of The Heart), and a shimmery Miss Me Blind. He joked around with the band, greeted fans by name, joked that hecklers should “enunciate better,” and bantered honestly about love, romance and butching up his famously pretty face by adding a beard.

The singer’s vocals and stage presence were thrilling, but he gave a bit too much individual stage time to his backup singers. The audience were clearly there to hear and celebrate him and the original Culture Club. 

Returning for an encore in an Olivia Pope-evoking dramatic white hat, he joked that the “hashtag bitchiest thing to do” would’ve been not singing their biggest hit of all: Karma Chameleon. Thankfully they did, accompanied by a joyously off-key choir of die-hard fans.

music@nowtoronto.com | @chakavgrier  

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