"ABC Featuring Martin Fry" Rock Area Livestock at Waukesha's Taste of Summer Festival
Jun 13 '06
The Bottom Line In which the author hears that that 10-year-old yodeler girl is really good.
It seemed like a set-up to an obscure reality TV joke. Actually, just a glance at the festival's schedule for their mainstage that day was enough to give a guy the giggles. But seeing that schedule played out - participating in its absurdity - was peculiarly delightful, and in its own goofy way, really really exciting. When VH-1 Classic's Eddie Trunk - that pussycat - announced, betraying no small amount of glee as he did so, that new wave legends ABC were going to be touring the U.S., my face lit up. When I found out they were actually going to be playing at Waukesha, Wisconsin's annual Taste of Summer Festival (a mere forty-five minute drive - and hey, I went to school there! Huzzah for Waukesha!), I knew that I must go and behold the glory of Martin Fry in the flesh. Moreover, I must take my 11-year-old son Stewart with me. For Stewart is a huge ABC fan. (He likes the Eurythmics and Naked Eyes too.)
Oh yes. We would see ABC in concert.
And so there we were, having paid our six dollars to get in the festival grounds (kids 11 and under free), sitting at a picnic table in the kind of open-air shelter they hold livestock auctions in, listening to a not-at-all embarrassing set by a local cover band called 76 Juliet whose repertoire went from Gloria Gaynor to Evanescence, AC/DC to Kelly Clarkson, waiting for our moment to arrive, and shivering against a mid-afternoon breeze. The day was glorious, and you could see past the stage to what seemed like endless rolling fields. Between songs, you could hear the sounds from a carnival midway, echoey remnants from some of the festivals other stages, and then just the sound of the bigness and sparseness of the land surrounding the Waukesha Expo Center on the city's far north side.
For days, I had felt anxious about this show. ABC's official website is decidedly Fry-centric, and makes little specific mention of a live band or the personnel for their ongoing American tour (in advance of a new studio album, tentatively titled Traffic - their first in 10 years - and targeted for release in January 2007. That, along with the curious (almost inconceivable, at least to this fanboy) fact that we would be able to sit in the reserved section of the show for what amounted to 3 bucks apiece got me to worrying that maybe this "ABC featuring Martin Fry" might be a really sad karaoke act. Visions of the shiny-suited frontman acting out former glories to backing tapes for a less-than-enthusiastic gaggle of over-all-sportin' Midwesterners haunted me in the days and hours preceding the concert. I knew also that Stewart would recognize a fraud when he saw one. If this concert was a disaster, how would that affect my credibility as the currently reigning Coolest Dad in the Universe?
Needless to say, I was heartened by the drumset that seemed to hover over these 76 Juliet people (who, did I mention, were not at all embarrassing) with the bass drum emboldened with that flashy ABC logo and its attendant tower of stars. ABC would be a band after all. My anxiety was replaced, then, by a sense of thrill and expectation. I was a little younger than Stewart when I first fell in love with ABC. I had the 45 of "The Look of Love" and I spent many hours (over the course of many years) singing and acting the part of Martin Fry in my bedroom mirror. To actually see the man in real life had always seemed a virtual impossibility, so much so that I'd never considered it until that morning with Eddie Trunk. Now, it was about to happen, and I felt positively giddy about it. Stewart was excited too, but he was also annoyed that 76 Juliet was taking so long (and playing so loud), though, as I've already mentioned, I did not find them at all embarrassing. They were quite good, in fact. Stew just wasn't accustomed to that kind of volume.
And the show did start an hour later than advertised.
So we had an extra hour to contemplate the multitude of signs advertising FM 106.1 Today's Hottest Country Hits. After ABC, the unsigned Midwestern country sensation Chasin' Mason would be taking the stage. Followed by a ten-year-old yodeler named Taylor Ware. Followed by the evening's headliner, Lonestar. The incongruousness of ABC playing on this bill was, of course, mind-boggling. And along with the scheduled 3:00 pm start-time (well before people were ready to start crawling out of the beer tents, greasy cheese curds in hand), it certainly didn't help them build a crowd, but I thought their was something wonderful about it. Like the beefy star quarterback of the Podunk High football team showing up to the prom with a boyfriend (who looks curiously like Carson Kressley).
Though the seats were still free, very few wandered up to the reserved section, most setting up blankets and folding chairs in the grassy section in the back, staking claims for later on tonight, and then leaving for the nearest frozen-cheesecake-on-a-stick stand. When the six man band - two drummers, two keyboardists, a guitarist and a bassist (who looked very familiar) - that would back up Martin Fry took the stage, to the strains of a synthesized string overture which included, among other things, that mid-section dialogue from "Poison Arrow" - I care enough to know that I could never love you - we in the audience barely outnumbered band and crew.
But when, after the opening song (a new one called "The Very First Time" which harkened back to the slick "house" version of the band, circa 1992), the band launched into "Show Me", an album track from their 1982 debut The Lexicon of Love, nearly everybody there sang along with furious glee; a contingency in the front row threw their limbs about with Pentecostal abandon, and one very hobo-looking man with a bald head and a scruffy Gandalf beard approached the stage fanning account his very extensive collection of ABC vinyl to the band's delight (and to our mild awe). Our numbers were clearly irrelevant. We were loving the show, and Fry and Co. looked and sounded like they were playing a massive, triumphant homecoming show.
In fact, adding the afternoon's myriad incongruities was just how vital this band sounded. A new wave group with a few very large hits but disproportionately low name-recognition, who haven't had a charting single in the U.S. in 20 years, who haven't even released a studio album here in more than 15 (1997's Skyscraping will only be found in the import sections), have very little business sounding as relevant as ABC did that afternoon; and Martin Fry, despite reports of ill health in the 90s, looked sharp in jeans and casual purple button-down shirt, and proved more dynamic and tuneful on stage than even his most classic recordings would suggest. (And they suggest a lot.)
The hour-and-a-half set included all the group's biggest hits, including "Poison Arrow", "How to be a Millionaire", and loose, affectionate takes on "Be Near Me" and "When Smokey Sings", along with several well chosen lesser-known singles ("The Night You Murdered Love", "Blame") and album tracks ("Date Stamp"). And as the show went on, you could see heretofore skeptical beer-bellies sidling up closer to the stage, and self-consciously glancing back to see if anyone caught them singing along or grooving a little too conspicuously. An early highlight of the show was the focused, sustained dual drummer bombardment that closed out one of the band's hardest, glammiest songs "That What Then But This Is Now" - a noise so fearsome that I felt nearly compelled to jump up and pound a devil-sign fist in the air. But that intensity was hardly isolated, and the band unveiled a new arena rock beast in the form of "Ride", a song slated for inclusion on the forthcoming Traffic album.
But after these diversions, the small (but now somewhat larger) audience was romanced out of its seats by a soul-melting rendition of the epic ballad "All of My Heart" (my favorite ABC song ever), and they kept us up for "The Look of Love". Stew said that I looked like a fool shouting "Who's got the look?" at the stage, and complained that I'd almost smacked him in the nose at least a half-dozen times during the closing minutes of the show (and those were his only complaints), but oh well. I didn't actually smack him in the nose, and I could hardly be bothered about looking foolish when - oh my freaking GAWD!!! - it's Martin Fry in freaking Waukesha, and I'm like, so totally freaking close to the man that I can see him, and moreover, that he can freaking see me and I can see him seeing me singing along with all these songs that I've loved for, like, two freaking thirds of my freaking life. Oh my freaking GAWD!!!
And 76 Juliet was pretty good too. For a cover band.
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BECAUSE YOU NEED TO KNOW:
ABC Featuring Martin Fry
Taste of Summer Music Festival
June 9, 2006
The Very First Time
How to be a Millionaire
That Was Then But This Is Now
The Night You Murdered Love
Be Near Me
When Smokey Sings
One Better World
Tears Are Not Enough
All of My Heart
The Look of Love