When the Scottish new wave band played New Orleans last week, the contexts that came with them were almost inescapable. Almost.
What do you do on an election day when you’re too anxious to watch the returns and too anxious to watch something else instead? On Wednesday, Simple Minds at the Saenger Theatre were that third option for me, and at times it was hard to separate the show from its context. Singer Jim Kerr sang, “make love your armor” in the opening “The Signal and the Noise,” and I wondered if there were people in America who could no longer do that. Was the uplift in the band’s sound beyond some people at this point? On a day that started with “Pod Save America” pointing out how hard it would be for Democrats to win 23 seats, I wondered if I was out of step or trying to escape into the familiar positivity of hitmakers from the 1980s. All of that was a little melodramatic in retrospect, but I think everyone’s emotionally raw after the last two years.
But within a few songs, Simple Minds’ show was too prepossessing to share brain space with doubts and dark thoughts. At their height in the mid-1980s, they were an arena band in England that also played Wembley Stadium, and it showed. They knew how to get anthemic songs over to the masses and could certainly do it for a three-quarters full Saenger. During the first song, Kerr could already get part of the crowd to clap their hands over their heads, and by “Stand by Love” late in the first of two sets, he could get most of the crowd to join in.
The show was the band’s first in New Orleans in more than 30 years and its current American tour is its first in 25 years. Perhaps for that reason, there were few in the audience who discovered the band in the intervening years. Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill have been constants in Simple Minds from Day One, but since the band’s lineup has been in flux since the early days, the show didn’t feel like one or two old boys propped up by faceless sidemen. The current lineup is powerful, often with two guitars, bassist Ged Grimes—who played more like a rhythm guitarist as he laid down a carpet of notes for the song to rest on—and drummer Cherisse Osei, who added a stadium thump to give the dreamy passages in the band’s songs some movement. Burchill’s guitar also took over some lines once played on synthesizers, so “Theme for Great Cities” traded in its icy, Kraftwerk-ian cool for the immediacy of Burchill making the melody more prominent and electric.
Kerr’s gestures onstage were often arena gestures, reaching up, hands up and outstretched toward the crowd in the back. He and the band were playing to the room and the additional 10,000 people who didn’t fit in the Saenger, but not at the expense of those who were there. Kerr shook and held the hands of fans who reached up to him from the front row throughout the show and made eye contact with many down front.
And that reaching up stance felt like the show in a nutshell. While it plugged into the band’s ambitions and one-time musical context, it also tapped into the prayer/worship imagery that threads through their songs. It’s not for nothing that skeptics once dismissed Simple Minds as the Scottish U2. That soft spirituality hardwired an uplifting vibe into the songs and show, and it made sense that the encore ended with “Sanctify Yourself.” But along the way, “Promised You a Miracle” reminded the audience that “belief is the only thing,” and “Glittering Price” lived “in the light of his love.” Is it a tease? A hedged bet? Savvy songwriting? Your call, but it’s the same dance that Bono and Marcus Mumford dance—a little vague but a lot hopeful, in Kerr’s case.
A thought throughout the show was why Simple Minds didn’t become bigger in the U.S. Not touring more regularly likely affected things, but I count eight to 10 hits in a 24-song night. You’d think more of those would have found American audiences, but 1985 was its best year as “(Don’t You) Forget About Me” from The Breakfast Club soundtrack helped Once Upon a Time reach number 10 on the U.S. charts when Sparkle in the Rain—with favorites “Waterfront” and “Up on the Catwalk”—a year earlier didn’t. Similarly, interest in the band helped “Alive and Kicking” and Sanctify Yourself” crack the top 20 in the States.
At the time, Simple Minds’ British contemporaries on the American charts were Wham!, Tears for Fears, and Phil Collins, only one of which had any live performance bona fides in the States. Wham! and Tears for Fears parlayed popularity on MTV into success, but many fans at the time were skeptical of video bands and were reluctant to invest fandom energy in them. After all, just a year earlier in 1984 the top new wave acts to chart in the States were Culture Club, Thompson Twins, and Duran Duran with “The Reflex.” A year after “Karma Chameleon,” Culture Club were off the charts, while Duran Duran peaked at number 35 with “A View to a Kill” and Thompson Twins maxed out at 84 with “Lay Your Hands on Me.” A year later in 1986, all three were gone, Wham! and Culture Club had broken up, and the charts had Pet Shop Boys, Billy Ocean, Simply Red and The Human League to contend with. It was in retrospect easy to write off British bands from that time as disposable.
Wednesday night showed that such a judgment was wrong where Simple Minds were concerned. In fact, “(Don’t You) Forget About Me” might be the band’s biggest hit in America, but it wasn’t their most exciting song. They played it second-to-last in the set, and despite its familiarity, the following “New Gold Dream 81-82-83-84” was far more kinetic and a far more exciting show closer. It was also easy to imagine an arena full of people counting off the numbers on their hands, even if only sections of the Saenger joined in that way.
In retrospect, another context was harder to escape than the midterm elections—Simple Minds’ past and the marketplace it lived in. That’s likely true for any band with more than a couple of decades of history, and it’s particularly so for Simple Minds, where in England the conventional narrative is that they’re the band that could have, and in 2012 when their first five albums were reissued, a common theme in interviews and Kerr’s thinking was that the band might have lost itself when it moved away from the grim post-punk of its first albums and the ornate New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84 to try to reach for larger audiences.
At the Saenger, the size and nature of the audience made that narrative relevant, but just like the midterms, the band’s performance pushed that context to the side. The bottom line was that we got the excitement that comes with an arena band in a theater, and big rock in an intimate space.