Over the course of The B-52s’ hourlong live performance on Saturday night at PNC Music Pavilion, strange started to feel normal.
We got used to goofy frontman Fred Schneider (now 67!) drawing from a collection of odd noisemakers to add layers to their already-strange songs from yesteryear: a walkie-talkie with a Morse code button for the sci-fi epic “Planet Claire”; a slide whistle for new-wave cautionary tale “Party Out of Bounds”; a glockenspiel to back Cindy Wilson’s (now 61!) vocals on “Give Me Back My Man”; and a cowbell for fun-loving hit “Love Shack.”
We got used to Kate Pierson (now 70!) and her bevy of wavy-gravy dance moves, many of which seemed cribbed from Uma Thurman’s character in “Pulp Fiction.”
And used to Schneider’s consistently bizarre banter between songs. “Last night we were having a vegetarian barbecue with our good friends, and all of a sudden it was so embarrassing,” he said in setting up “Lava” — off their eponymous 1979 debut album, “ ’cause a volcano opened up in our backyard and spewed lava all over our guests.”
So after The B-52s wrapped their 12-song set with a jubilant rendition of the surfer-friendly “Rock Lobster” (and more cowbell), and as Boy George walked on stage with Culture Club to kick off the next phase of the groups’ co-headlining show, it would have been fair to assume we were in store for another hour-plus of weirdness.
After all, striding out was a 57-year-old man with a beard and heavy eye makeup wearing a top hat, a black trench coat decorated with neat rows of hundreds of matching pieces of shimmery gold metal, and saggy black pants with white streaks.
But guess what? Turns out Boy George isn’t nearly as strange a fellow as you might have remembered — or, if you’ve never seen him in concert before, as you might have assumed he was.
In fact, the Culture Club bandleader managed to bring the show back down to earth after it had drifted into outer space during The B-52s’ bright yet standoffish performance. He worked his tail off to connect with the crowd where Schneider seemed to frequently work to bewilder it; but even more commendable (and perhaps surprising) was how marvelously controlled and soulful Boy George’s voice sounded.
His opening song was a robust, close-to-spot-on rendition of his late hero David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” with the seven-piece band (including original members Roy Hay, Mikey Craig and Jon Moss) and four very good backup singers re-creating the 1983 cut’s keyed-up, foot-stomping music without drowning him out.
Then he introduced Culture Club as “a soul-funk-pop-reggae combo from the United Kingdom, where we have two queens,” promising “something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue” — and he delivered.
There was a fair amount of “old,” with the oldest being three tracks he dug out of their 1982 debut album “Kissing to Be Clever,” starting with “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya.” For the “new,” the band did four songs that Boy George keeps saying will end up on the “Tribes” album he’s been talking about for years now (but there’s no release date in sight, so think twice before holding your breath).
In addition to “Let’s Dance,” Boy George “borrowed” rocker Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” (though Saturday night’s version didn’t have quite as hard an edge, he channeled his inner rock star at the end by taking the cap off of a full water bottle and violently waving it to send a spray of water windmilling across the stage).
And the best example of “something blue”? Culture Club’s first — and biggest — hit ever: “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me,” a song its frontman admitted he initially didn’t believe in.
“In 1982 ... when this song was released by Virgin Records,” he told fans, “I have to say at the time I was horrified. I was like, ‘This song’s too slow, you can’t dance to it, it’s never gonna be a hit.’ And it went on to be a hit in 32 countries. So you learn sometimes that you’re not always right.”
It being largely a nostalgia show (the opener, by the way, was Tom Bailey of The Thompson Twins), there was a fair amount of gray hair in the audience. But despite the newer music his band trotted out, Boy George didn’t try to pretend this wasn’t largely a nostalgia show.
In setting up “Time (Clock of the Heart),” he said: “This next song is from our album ‘Colour by Numbers.’ Now, some of you definitely look old enough to remember albums. And the rest of you, maybe you’ve had some really good work done, I don’t know. You look remarkably fresh and young.”
At another point, though, he was more reflective as he regarded the crowd.
“If we were building the ark tonight, we’d be off to a very good start. (I see) pretty much one or two of everything. In fact, maybe three or four. Yes. Of course, we’re all beautifully unique in our own way, drawn magically together by the spirit of music. I do believe it’s the only thing that makes sense in this crazy world.”
(These remarks may have particularly resonated with those who’d parked on the far side of Pavilion Boulevard and were forced to walk past a couple of anti-gay protesters — including one with a loudspeaker — to get to the venue.)
Earlier, The B-52s’ Schneider had delivered a related message to fans on the heels of “Love Shack,” saying: “Yes, peace and love is where it’s at, so if you see politicians bring back racist symbols and flags and things like that, avoid them and vote for people who want a positive future.” It was perhaps the only moment in that set when he didn’t talk like an alien.
Meanwhile, Boy George only got weird, really, once.
As he sat on a speaker and mimicked how awkward it was to dance from a seated position, in an attempt to get people out of their seats, the singer suddenly turned his attention to a fan near the stage.
“Now, don’t film me, darling,” he told her. “I don’t want to be on Facebook. ... I’m not Madonna. Not everything has to be filmed. Well, she started it, didn’t she? In bed with Madonna. Everything had to be filmed. And now everything is filmed. And I don’t like it. But, you know, anyway, you distracted me with your filming.”
Whatever it is he doesn’t like about being on camera, he definitely takes it seriously: While opener Tom Bailey and co-headliner The B-52s were fine with an Observer photographer taking pictures of their performances, Boy George and Culture Club did not grant the same permissions. Instead, the photos of Boy George that are included with this review were taken by his house photographer and were sent to the Observer by public relations firm PMK•BNC nearly 12 hours after the show ended.
Sure, I understand what the argument might be, that he wants to make sure he looks good in photos that were taken by someone he trusts. But one, in my experience, major music tours provide photo credentials to the media more than 90 percent of the time.
And two, for someone who wears the things he wears to draw attention to himself — “That’s not why we’re here, to be comfortable,” he told me recently — the fact that he is so camera-shy is indeed just a little strange...
Culture Club’s set list
1. “Let’s Dance” (David Bowie cover)
2. “It’s a Miracle”
3. “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya”
4. “Let Somebody Love You”
5. “Time (Clock of the Heart)”
6. “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?”
7. “The Truth Is a Runaway Train”
8. “Different Man”
9. “Miss Me Blind”
10. “Church of the Poison Mind”
11. “You Give Me Life”
12. “Addicted to Love” (Robert Palmer cover)
13. “Karma Chameleon”
The B-52s’ set list
1. “Planet Claire”
2. “Dance This Mess Around”
5. “Private Idaho”
6. “Revolution Earth”
7. “52 Girls”
9. “Party Out of Bounds”
10. “Give Me Back My Man”
11. “Love Shack” (Lowrider interlude)
12. “Rock Lobster”