As an update on the state of the world, pigs have not yet flown and it’s still not anything resembling cold down under (not Australia, think further down…), but the next thing in line has now come to fruition.
Erasure started the U.S. leg of their Acoustic tour, in support of their new album, Union Street, Friday night in Nashville. Taking the stage at the historic Ryman Auditorium seemed both as odd and as fitting as the pairing the group uses for their latest release. Union Street finds the influential synth-pop duo ditching all the instrumentation that has made them what they are, and instead opting for an acoustic band setup that finds as much inspiration from country music as it does the actual songs the duo has penned over the years. It’s the MTV Unplugged concept taken a step further, going past just stripping something down to the base, by rebuilding it back up with a new set of rules.
The choice of beginning their North American tour at the Ryman in Nashville, a city they’ve never visited as a headlining act, was both gutsy and refreshing. Refreshing, because many fans in the area had not had the opportunity to see the group live, short of driving or flying long distances to catch them in another city. But also gutsy, due to the nature of the release. On paper, the idea of a strictly electronic pop duo deciding to reinvent some of their catalog songs in pseudo-country style is about the most ridiculous stunt to be pulled this year. There’s no reason for it to be anything more than a novelty act. Except for the fact the group has consistently churned out album after album of solid songwriting. Solid songs, delivered by a capable and confident vocalist in Andy Bell, should be able to stand on their own in many different settings. But if you’re going to try to take your music in that direction, and you can make it fly in Nashville of all places, then you might be on to something really special.
The auditorium wasn’t exactly at capacity level. There were some seats on the edges of the balcony level open. Plus the fact they were filming the show rendered some of the floor level unusable. But aside from that, it was a well-attended show stocked with hyper-excited fans. The audience did their best to assure the band that what they were doing was the right thing by giving a standing ovation upon their arrival to the stage. And again after the first song. And the second song. And the song after that… And after every single song that was performed. It was a very electric experience (if you’ll pardon the irony); with the band and audience continually feeding off of each other until you were sure one was going to swell to the point of explosion.
The band was comprised of a five-piece instrumental core (both Vince Clarke and Union Street producer Steve Walsh on acoustic guitar, a drummer, an upright bass player, and another guitarist handling both steel and pedal steel responsibilities), two female backup singers, and of course Andy. The combo played together extremely well. A couple of technical glitches crept into the set, possibly due to the added tech functions being carried out for the filming, but nothing that distracted from the enjoyment of the music. Most of the material from Union Street was represented, as well as many of their past hits rearranged to fit into the format.
The nice thing about the new release is that it’s easily more than a greatest hits repackaging. One reason is due to the obviously drastic style change. The second has to do with not having any “hits” on it (I believe one track was a single, but that still leaves the percentage pretty low). The whole point of the record, and in turn the tour, is to shine light on the strong songwriting of the duo especially by mining some oft-neglected back catalog. A great song is a great song even when it’s been stripped down to nothing but guitar and vocals. Also, Vince has pointed out this is actually how their songwriting process starts. The pair will trade song ideas back and forth during the making of an album, but they all start as acoustic tracks backed by either guitar or piano. The album is probably less of a happy accident and something more akin to an “Inside The Actor’s Studio” for music.
The surprising turn of events for this record could possibly make it an ideal candidate to draw in music fans who might not necessarily be Erasure fans, or electronic pop fans in general. I mean really, if you’re not inclined towards synthesizer bleeps and pulsing beats, then someone doing that “really well” probably isn’t going to change the landscape for you. It’s still a niche you might not find interesting. But you might be missing out on some really nice songs. Enter Union Street. In some respects, it’s an attempt to bring music down to its least common denominator. It excels in its simplicity and impresses with its frugality of sound. At the end of day, it’s a musical statement having all the reserved bravado of “here are what we feel to be some really good songs, and hopefully you’ll find the new style to your liking.”
The Union Street material leans heavily on the slow side, giving it a very singer-songwriter feel. The term “country” is fairly misleading in terms of the album, as the presence of a dobro or pedal-steel guitar in a song is not going to magically turn something into “country” music. “Acoustic” is much more fitting. However, in the live setting, they did manage to pull out some full-on country twang with hits such as “Blue Savannah”, “Oh L’amour” and “Chains Of Love,” not to mention a ripping salsa rendition of “Love To Hate You.” There was no opening act, and no intermission, which helped to break you into the vibe of the evening. If you weren’t expecting this reinvention of the group, then you might have been a little confused during the first song. By the second song, you would have been tapping your foot and getting used to the change. But by the third song, it would have been very difficult to not get lost in the wonderful peculiarity of it all and just throw up your hands and say, “This is freakin’ cool!”
It would be very interesting to see a companion or follow-up piece to the new record. The live show was full to the brim of energy, as the slower cuts from the album were worked in with very upbeat versions of other classics. Union Street, whether by fluke or mad genius, succeeds amazingly well. It’s both natural and respectful, as if this has been brewing within them for some time before it just had to come out. But as good as it is, the faster and more obviously country-flavored renditions took it to yet another level of surreal class. This will be available on the eventual DVD release of the show, but another studio release would be very nice.
There was only one encore, which was kept short and sweet with the lone song being their 80′s hit “A Little Respect.” And then the excited fans clapped for a while longer before eventually leaving the auditorium very satisfied. Yes, the premise is a bit odd. But did it succeed? To judge by the crowd, it went over huge. Being at the front of the balcony, you could look over onto the floor and see a small sea of people dancing, clapping, and praising this as the next big thing. And then behind, there was the section at the back of the balcony, which we affectionately called “the party zone,” with more of the same taking place in the convenience of generously sized aisles.
Erasure fans in general tend to be an excitable bunch, but there is honesty to it. The last thing you want to see is one of your favorite groups botch some experiment. You’ll still encourage them, but it might be in the direction of getting back to their core talents. Fortunately, Erasure was able to take a proof of concept, embrace it, and make it fully as enjoyable as what come before (if not more so, in some instances). I think I speak on behalf of everyone in attendance when I say “Bravo, Vince and Andy! You killed in Music City, so please come back and grace the stage of the Ryman anytime.”