It is good to get a sense of normality again as restrictions lift even in Wales and gigs come back, and this mid-week appointment with the Cardiff date of Tony Hadley’s 40th anniversary tour, celebrating four full decades since the inception of Spandau Ballet, was an excellent occasion to shake off the cobwebs and experience a rather different mood from my usual post-punk fare. The framing was that of Cardiff’s St David’s Hall – more theatre than music venue, but with the kind of stage you want the big showy bands to get access to – and the crowd, while in turn rather different from the usual lot to be found at grassroots clubs, still found a way to get some dancing in, making for a relaxed but far-from-charmless affair. Nostalgia operations have never quite been my thing, and I feel ambivalent at best about seated gigs, but as someone who grew up with the rock classics of the 70s and 80s I have a soft spot for New Wave and synth-pop, and Spandau Ballet were a recurring music presence in my house growing up, so it was interesting to take a dive into the past for once.
I will add for full disclosure that the primary push for me in attending this gig was to see the support. There is something delightful in seeing a band you like catch a break, and The Vanities fully deserve one, as their sound is one of the most interesting coming out of the Cardiff scene in recent times. The synth-rock duo, made up of vocalist Rhys Bradley and bass guitarist Adam Hill, were joined on stage by a full complement of supporting musicians for a set showcasing material from their most recent album, 2001. There is much to love in there for anyone who enjoys a bit of cheeky electronica, and plenty of suggestions and influences to unpack: most prominent is certainly the inspiration derived from a fairly large chunk of the late David Bowie’s career (with echoes of Aladdin Sane, Outside, and, most surprisingly, Cat People), a hint of Depeche Mode, a solid dose of various synth lines straight from the 80s, and even some snippets of something that sounds a lot like soft jazz. I am notoriously partial to a good sax solo, and saxophonist Jack McDougal delivered above and beyond. It is always a daunting task to open a gig, especially for a big act with a loyal audience, and even more so in a seated venue, but The Vanities showed up with a charismatic stage presence and an impressively polished delivery, and their set felt much too short. I am very eager to see this band get up close and personal with the audience in a grassroots venue, as they have plenty of energy and magnetism and they’re not scared to make good use of it.
Most of the crowd, of course, was there for the main act, and I will say that my trepidation surrounding it was unwarranted, as Hadley delivered a solid, long set with a charming stage presence and plenty of interesting moments. The voice is still there, still powerful and capable of virtuoso moments, and so is the innate charisma that is the true making of a frontman. I did greatly appreciate that the inevitable nostalgia romp was punctuated with new materials, and that those had a fair degree of inventiveness and complex research in their sound, although it must be said that the old glories from the Spandau Ballet years still dominate in terms of both musical complexity and uniqueness of voice. One interesting observation emerging from this, in fact, was to realise how some of the less known Spandau Ballet pieces selected by Hadley for performance were so much more accomplished, intriguing, and musically unique than the big, famous hits the audience was clamouring for (both True and Gold were duly performed, and yet they sounded somehow less than compared to what I would call the truly impressive highlights of this set, the more obscure, slightly more neurotic tracks with their synth lines still closely related to something that may have come out of Germany in the late 70s, their buzzing bass and their sax flourishes). There were some covers, too, woven into the performance gracefully and in a non-intrusive way; one of the things I enjoyed, as someone who often lingers, when it comes to live performance consumption, between music and theatre, was the way in which the set felt at times like something in between music gig and cabaret show. Hadley has the presence for it, the ability to not take himself too seriously and the technical skill to support it, and he plays to the crowd in an effortless way that made the whole nostalgia operation much more palatable and pleasant than it might otherwise have been.
If there is a lingering reflection carrying on after this gig, it is, I think, a bizarre note of hopefulness in seeing an old glory and an up-and-coming band in such close sequence, sounding as if there was a clear continuity between them and yet as if the old times were not the only refuge available, their continuity unbroken as new bands step up to produce music that is both aware of its past and eager to step into its future. Nostalgic as they night might have been, it is by looking out for that future that one comes out on the other side.