Against the preposterously plush backdrop of The Royal Albert Hall, The Human League and The Penelopes combined to provide a joyous night of generation- spanning synth-pop.
Based around the talents of French expats Axel Basquiat and Vincent T, The Penelopes’ brand of swirling electro serves as a perfect introduction to the night. They perform with a pomp and swagger becoming of the venue, and even if their inherently danceable tunes aren’t completely congruous with a full-seater setting, they still manage to bring the crowd to life.
Propelled on by both the surging bass line and the icy backing vocals provided by Laura Kidd, the funk inflections of recent single ‘Sally in the Galaxy’ go down particularly well, especially when keys player, Vincent, dressed in a red shirt and black jacket, garbles into a telephone that distorts his voice, looking for all the world like a member of the anti-Kraftwerk.
Thundering rave number ‘The Sweet Song’ (no relation to the latter day Blur ditty) is another highlight, but the set’s apex is definitely the new release, ‘Now, Now, Now’, an instantly accessible dance track shot through with a sense of melancholy that belies the influence of the headline act.
Speaking with Vincent after the gig he told us: “We like to make people dance, but we also like sad and depressing music. We come from a gloomy suburb near Paris, but we always try to find the light. That’s why we feel close to some bands like The Human League who come from Sheffield, Manchester and other grey cities.”
When The Human League do take to the stage, the mood is anything but gloomy, even if the colour scheme on stage is as monochrome as the group’s industrial home. On an all white, two tiered platform the band are revealed by a raising screen that looks like the hull of some sort of de-commissioned space ship. Sporting an all black dress code, they look understated (by new romantic standards anyway) aside from Philip Oakey, who’s wearing a huge black hood which is thrown back to reveal infa- red glasses wrapping over his iconic bold head. Anyone else would look like they’d stepped off the set of a low budget vampire flick, but, obviously, he manages to carry it off.
They descend down to the stage and start tearing through their back catalogue. Within three songs the majority of people are dancing (or at least trying to) and will stay that way throughout. Musically, the band are as tight just as you’d expect after thirty five years of practice. A bigger surprise is just how gracefully their songs have aged.
Playing with just electric percussion, two sets of multi-layered keyboards (the top halves of which, wonderfully, can be detached and worn as keytars) and vocals, the arrangements are relatively sparse, depending more on the energy of their delivery than the amalgamation of electronic effects the feature on the records. Oddly, given that albums such as Dare gained notoriety largely for setting pop tunes against noises that sound like Brian Eno left alone with just a couple of circuit boards for company, the songs benefit from being stripped back a touch.
Hits such as ‘The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of’ and ‘Louise’, for example, are both greatly improved by the extra clarity the enforced sparseness affords them (which is not to say they lack clout. They are backed by thousands of fans singing along to every single syllable, after all.) Indeed, given that backing tracks are starting to become a ubiquitous part of live performances, even by artists with no particular electronic leanings, it’s great to see the pioneers of their genre still playing totally live.
The whole set is littered with hits spanning their entire career and, given their highs and lows, is incredibly consistent, despite their determination to represent all the phases of their existence, or at least most of them. Inevitably, ‘Don’t You Want Me’ is saved for the encore, only to be trumped by the grand finale; a moving rendition of ‘Together in Electric Dreams’ that has everyone off their seats, singing along in various states of embrace, whilst Nic Burke, now on guitar, runs from one side of the stage to the other, up and down the steps in constant wide eyed awe. The night is crowned (literally) by vocalist Susan Sully, who gifts her tiara to a young fan on her way off stage in a miniature coronation. A fitting gesture following a regal, but engagingly humble, performance.