Review: Symphonic 80s at Philharmonic Hall ****1/2
It may have the reputation as a time of questionable sartorial taste, but the 80s was also a decade of fantastic music – which 40 years on sounds as fresh as ever.
And both were in good supply in this pre-Christmas concert which brought together a quartet of fine actor-singers with the Liverpool Phil - many of whose members had entered into the spirit of it by sporting leg warmers, Katherine Hamnett T-shirts, shell suits and bubble perms, all under the baton of conductor and arranger Rob Eckland.
As a teenager (and yes, the 80s were my teenage years) it was a ritual to tune in to the Tuesday lunchtime charts on an illicit radio smuggled into school, sit down in front of Thursday night Top of the Pops or to carefully record a Sunday teatime chart show packed with hits.
And it seems from the reaction of the Phil audience that I’m not the only one nostalgic for a perhaps less complicated time and its music.
There was pure, radiant (mostly middle-aged) joy in the singing, dancing stalls and circle as soloists and band embarked a two-hour musical journey from post-punk and synth pop to the Stock Aitken Waterman years of the end of the decade.
There’s always a danger that in translating classic pop hits into orchestral numbers you end up with something which sounds like lift muzak.
But Eckland managed to neatly sidestep that in his arrangements, assisted by having an engine room of guitar, bass, drumkit and keyboards over which the Phil – an experienced outfit when it comes to this kind of thing – layered a wall of rich symphonic, at times anthemic, sound which (mostly) added to the original tunes.
They included George Michael’s Faith, delivered with poppy energy by Oliver Tompsett and Patrick Smyth, a Bowie medley with the busy percussion section underpinning its Ashes to Ashes opening, a string of brilliant Blondie hits delivered by Emma Kershaw and Katie Birtill, and a raucous, singalong Come on Eileen, its buoyant opening bars launched by the Phil’s strings.
The strings also took centre stage in the middle eight of a pacy Total Eclipse of the Heart, in which Birtill delivered a bravura vocal performance, and in the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams – with crisp punctuations from brass and wind, who also drove the opening bars of Take on Me.
Somehow, a full orchestra made the opening of Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger sound like a full-blown Bond theme (mention also to Elizabeth McNulty on shimmering harp), while Ultravox’s Vienna (its video currently being sent up nightly down the road at the Royal Court) was a dramatic symphonic triumph.
On a night when Storm Elin did her best to wreak havoc, there was something apt about Elton John’s I’m Still Standing. And about Dead or Alive’s You Spin Me Round (the late Pete Burns’ disco banger accompanied by choreographed actual spinning from the basses).
It being nearly Christmas, the party atmosphere spilled over into a pair of festive singalong encores – although anyone currently playing Whamageddon was spared rushing from the room.
Eckland also eschewed Band Aid and Shakin’ Stevens, opting instead for Cliff’s 1988 chart-topper Mistletoe and Wine, before finally stepping back a decade for a spot of 70s Slade.