Culture Club nods to the past, pushes into the future at the Greek

Culture Club at the Greek Theatre, July 23, 2015. Photo by Lina Lecaro
Culture Club at the Greek Theatre, July 23, 2015. Photo by Lina Lecaro

When considering the ’80s, there are only a few artists who’ve earned their place on the icon list thanks to distinctive voices and extraordinary personas, both of which captured mainstream awe in spite of their eccentricities: Madonna, Prince, Cyndi Lauper and Boy George come to mind. It’s a musical gift that all four of these fearless and flamboyant performers are still making music today, even if their newer material doesn’t get much respect. It’s surely a conundrum for these trailblazing 50-something superstars too. Do they attempt to stay relevant by adopting the current music trends and fashions (Madonna), go the nostalgia/standards/theatre route (Lauper) or simply do whatever the hell they want (Prince). Boy George seems to be playing it all three ways and for the most part, it’s working.

On Thursday night at the Greek Theatre, George and the original lineup of Culture Club went through a carefully curated mix of old hits and new tracks off their forthcoming record, “Tribes.” There were some truly magical flashback moments, some (weak) attempts at experimentation and mostly successful nods to the soul, funk and reggae inspirations that made the band so refreshing when it first emerged amid the torrent of new wave synth in the ’80s.

The new material is, in truth, all over the place, ranging from soft rock to pop to believe it or not, country (George said he wrote “Runaway Train” after overhearing hip kids blasting Johnny Cash). The really downtempo numbers are mostly forgettable, and the off-genre stuff is weird, and not good weird. Only when the band stays true to rhythmic grooves and showcasing of George’s soulful croon, do the new songs work. George’s vocals are sounding stronger than ever, by the way, though higher notes were helped along by a trio of back-up singers.

Androgynous blue-eyed soul singers are celebrated these days (maybe too much, right?), but in the ’80s George and Culture Club were a wonderful anomaly. They were a soul band with a drag queen singer crooning bitterweet love songs contrasted by a super-cheeky sensibility (as shown in their colorful videos). It really was, as one of their biggest hits marveled, “A Miracle” that they hit the big-time when they did.

Before performing their breakthrough, “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me,” George recalled that the single was released with a blank white cover in America because the record companies were concerned how the band’s image would go over here. Ultimately, they had nothing to worry about; the song topped the charts in the U.S. and all around the world, and it was the accompanying video — showing patrons at a public pool freaking out over George’s girlie braids and white tunic — that got everyone’s attention, and influenced fashion along the way.

On Thursday night, the first of the band’s two nights at the Greek those who grew up with Culture Club got to relive all the songs and videos that made them fall in love with the band’s music and style — and question their sexuality — to begin with. “Time,” “Miss Me,” “I’ll Tumble For Ya,” “Karma Chameleon,” all went over nicely, even when George changed up arrangements or vocal registers.

Visuals were a huge part of show all around, as was lighting, which drenched the audience with happy, hopping hues throughout. Of course, there were costume changes too: a big-wigged opener, then a pimped-out top hat look for the bulk of the set and finally, an exotic tiara for the end. And a surprise duet with Jack Black, covering David Bowie’s “Starman” no less, punctuated the giddy, retro-party feel of the night and made for a perfect climax. (Caitlyn Jenner would cameo at Friday’s show).

Though there was a lot of homage paid to the past, it wasn’t all about the ’80s. Smartly, much of what Culture Club are doing now comes from delving into the music of innovators who came before them. It was great to see George celebrating his biggest influencers — Sly Stone and Bowie — and pushing toward something new at the same time. This wasn’t your typical nostalgia show. If they haven’t yet, we bet it won’t be long before the Ed Sheerans and the Sam Smiths are paying this Boy props on stage. They definitely should anyway.