Over a 90-minute set on Saturday Mike & the Mechanics touched a number of bases, all of them comfortable and familiar: Rousing AOR rock, soft rock ballads, retro-soul, and as always, just a slight touch of Genesis prog.
By Brett Milano
It’s not often you’ll see Mike & the Mechanics and Gang of Four mentioned in the same sentence. But the two groups, both tied in their own way to the ’80s, have something else in common: When they both hit town this weekend, the only familiar face onstage was the guitarist.
The Mechanics was of course the band formed by Genesis guitarist/bassist Mike Rutherford in 1985. And they proved, for a time, that Phil Collins wasn’t the only Genesis member who could make sleek, commercial pop on his own. Currently the Mechanics are celebrating their 30th anniversary, but theirs isn’t the busiest of histories: They’ve made one album in the past decade, and the last US tour was clear back in 1988 (also the year of their last major US hit, “The Living Years”). Genesis split up in the interim, and with Phil Collins and Tony Banks both largely retired, that leaves Rutherford as the only member of the core trio still touring.
The Genesis connection probably accounted for half the audience at the Wilbur Saturday, to judge from the T-shirts on display (and the applause that went up for “Turn It On Again,” the first of two Genesis songs played). But the Mechanics’ sound was never anything like Genesis, even at that band’s poppiest: The Mechanics embraced the production techniques and white-soul trappings of’80s pop wholeheartedly, with its albums becoming a showcase for a roomful of songwriters and software programmers. The band itself was almost incidental. So it barely mattered that Rutherford took the stage with a mostly-new support cast this weekend (Of their two original singers, Paul Young — not the solo hitmaker of that name — died in 2000 and UK soul man Paul Carrack has returned to solo status). The sound is the point, and it’s changed remarkably little since that 1988 tour.
There’s an integrity in that, and you sure can’t accuse Rutherford of chasing trends: He likes a well-crafted hook and a polished arrangement. Over a 90-minute set on Saturday the band touched a number of bases, all of them comfortable and familiar: Rousing AOR rock, soft rock ballads, retro-soul, and as always, just a slight touch of Genesis prog: The first Mechanics single “Silent Running” was done early in the set and remains their one number that could pass for a good Genesis track. Most of the soul came from recently-added singer Andrew Roachford, whose own US hit “Cuddly Toy” provided one of the liveliest moments with Rutherford taking a rare turn on bass, his original instrument in Genesis. The lineup as always featured two lead singers, and Roachford’s understatement made an amusing contrast with Tim Howar’s arena-ready bluster.
Some of this was bound to sound dated, but the high sense of songcraft generally won the day. The rocker “Nobody’s Perfect” and the anthemic encore “Word of Mouth” both win the “why wasn’t this a bigger hit?” sweepstakes. Rutherford as always kept a low profile on lead guitar, but stepped forward for a few lyrical solos. The band’s biggest popular success, “The Living Years” remains the most thoughtful hit song about the breakdown in father-son relationships around (beating Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle” by a mile). On Saturday it was handled with appropriate care, with its choral finale scaled down to tasteful three-part harmony.
Genesis fans got an additional fix from opening act Daryl Stuermer, the fusion vet who played guitar and bass in their touring lineup. Accompanied only by his computer, Strermer did an instrumental set that included three originals plus Jeff Beck’s “Freeway Jam” and Peter Gabriel’s “Shock the Monkey.. Unlike Rutherford, Stuermer has no qualms about playing plenty of flashy solos, but he kept the melodies upfront and never let his performance devolve into pure shredding.
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.