I should mention something right up front: I have little to no familiarity with Happy Mondays or the Psychedelic Furs. They are both admitted blind spots for a person who tries to make a point of knowing as much about pop music as possible. There’s no real reason for my lack of familiarity in either case. I always assumed I’d get around to the Psychedelic Furs someday and never have. I love 24 Hour Party People, but the movie is more of a showcase for the Happy Mondays’ personalities than their music, and the fragments of their music that I’ve heard have done little to pique my curiosity. Basically, I was at the Newport this past Monday to see Islands who, it turns out, were the openers. Rightly so, of course. Islands are great, but they have a ways to go before they develop the kind of notoriety that is associated with the Mondays and the Furs. Nonetheless, after the show, I was wishing the Islands had been given more time, preferably at the Happy Mondays’ expense.
There wasn’t really anything objectionable about the Happy Mondays. Their brand of heavy, groove-oriented dance-pop was well-handled by the backing band (none original Mondays’ members), and the woman hired to do most of the singing for “lead” singer Shaun Ryder certainly knew her way around the stage, unabashedly vamping throughout the set. Yet there was really no making up for the fact that Ryder was largely corpse-like, mostly rooted in one spot and making minimal effort to add to the vibrant atmosphere. I understand that Ryder has spent the better part of his life in a self-contained opiate terrarium and that he probably sleeps in a tub of formaldehyde to slow the effects of years of bodily abuse, but man, was he boring to watch. Ryder even left the stage with several minutes remaining in the final song, which, for those keeping track, left zero original Happy Mondays onstage for the final full three minutes. Suffice to say, this performance did little to speed up my interest in the Happy Mondays’ oeuvre.
The Furs, on the other hand, did make a convincing argument for their reputation. Again, my limited Furs fluency prevented me from truly appreciating their set like the rest of the lively crowd clearly did, but front man Richard Butler’s spirited performance provided a sharp and welcome contrast to Ryder’s obligatory show. Sure, the Furs (much like the Mondays and, well, everyone) should eschew sunglasses indoors, and at night. Furthermore, something about alto saxophone makes me feel inexplicably awful, and there was plenty of it Monday night, but I will admit the Furs’ saxophonist did seem to have the crowd fully won over. The Furs, I will be pursuing further.
Islands, being tour openers, had the misfortune of playing to the audience at its most scant. Sad to say, it did seem to have an effect on their show. Front man Nick Diamonds and the pair of multi-instrumentalists on either side of him bounced around from time to time, but they mostly seemed bummed about the empty space in the room, even if it filled out nicely midway through their set. Fortunately, this didn’t prevent Islands from performing their largely Vapours-oriented set of preternaturally catchy synth-pop with confident ease. As it turns out, even a little gloom can’t take the shine off of the iridescent hooks of “Creeper” (from the underappreciated Arm’s Way) or Vapours highlight “Heartbeat,“ performed minus Auto-tune. Diamonds even occasionally popped his collar and followed it up with some amusingly awkward hip shaking. Either way, it would have been nice if they had some time to delve a little further into their consistently impressive back catalogue and win over a few more members of the slightly aged crowd. But they mostly came for the Psychedelic Furs, and they more than got what they asked for.