If Boy George had carried on in this vein — working the best of the old in with the new, and keeping the soul roots upfront — the night would have been a surprise triumph.
By Brett Milano
Boy George’s weekend appearance at the Royale Boston ranks as one of the weirder comeback shows in memory, and not because the ex-Culture Club frontman was in bad shape. Quite the opposite: By all accounts newly sober after a famously checkered past, he looked and sounded great — just barely recognizable. The voice was still silky, if about two octaves deeper than it was in Culture days. But the physical appearance was the real surprise: Having gained and lost impressive amounts of weight over the years, he’s now thin and spry again — and apparently done with camp and androgyny. His onstage garb is now a T-shirt and jacket, fedora hat, goatee and moustache (and just a touch of tastefully applied mascara). You could be excused for wondering if that was Boy George onstage at all.
In fact, during the first few tunes of Saturday’s show — by far its most successful stretch — you might mistake him for Paul Weller’s sharper brother. The opener “King of Everything” (also the first track on his new album, This Is What I Do) was a tough soul strut, with the nine-piece band (including three horns, two backup singers and a sign interpreter) sounding more muscular than Culture Club ever did. He slid into a reggae groove for an old solo hit, his guilty-pleasure cover of Bread’s early-‘70s weepie “Everything I Own”, then back to soul for “My God.” This was indeed a religious song, but one that keeps in character, with a chorus of “My God is better than your God” (his of course being the one that loves unreservedly). And it made a perfect segue into Culture Club’s old slam at the religious right, “Church of the Poisoned Mind.”
If he’d carried on in this vein — working the best of the old in with the new, and keeping the soul roots upfront — the night would have been a surprise triumph. But the first glitch happened during “Church,” when he stopped and re-started the song to gripe at a couple people upfront who were taking films and uploading to Youtube. “They always have to do that during the ‘80s songs, because they think they can bring the ‘80s back that way,” he noted afterwards. “I can tell you that it’s not going to happen.”
Fair enough. But you can’t completely escape the ‘80s either, as George seemed to be trying to do. The rest of the night had only two more Culture Club hits — the obvious two, “Karma Chameleon” and “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” — and he held the mike to the audience on the chorus of each, a sure sign that he’d lost interest in them. Like most of the set, both tunes were done as roots reggae complete with dubbing and toasting; and George’s Jamaican accent was none too good, mon. His rapport with the audience ran hot and cold: One minute he was saluting people in the balcony for dancing; the next he was yelling “Shut the fuck up!” during an acoustic number. The latter, tellingly enough, was Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe,” the granddaddy of audience-kissoff songs. “Maybe this one will shut you up,” he said before following that with T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On),” a song that really doesn’t need another cover version. Instead of a celebratory encore to slam it home, he came back with more reggae, on the two new songs he hadn’t already played.
The new album is fairly explicitly about recovery from addiction, so nobody’s going to begrudge him a few New Age-y sentiments. And his oft-defensive attitude isn’t hard to understand, after the two decades he spent getting raked over the coals by the UK press. Still, on Saturday George had an audience that was clearly on his side, and didn’t always seem to realize that.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.