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Concert Review: Chameleons Vox At The Crocodile, Seattle, WA, 09/21/10

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The Chameleons (a.k.a. Chameleons U.K.) were a band based out of Manchester, England who released three wonderful, critically acclaimed, but moderately successful albums during the mid-to-late eighties.

Although the albums Script Of The Bridge, What Does Anything Mean? (Basically), and Strange Times are today regarded by fans and critics alike as influential classics of the period, many believe to this day that the Chameleons never quite got their due. They’re right.

Led by singer/songwriter/bassist Mark Burgess, the Chameleons sound was marked by a mix of alternately chiming guitars and densely layered minor chords, which provided a perfect match to Burgess’ lyrics exploring the depths of spiritual darkness and the joys of rapturous innocence.

Although often compared with similar sounding, but more commercially successful bands from the same era (Echo & The Bunnymen and U2 are often mentioned), the Chameleons still never made it past the status of a cult band. Still, although they never sold many records, to their hardcore fans the Chameleons were thought of (and still are) as “the greatest band you’ve never heard of.”

Two decades and counting later, enough of those fans memories remained strong this past Tuesday night to pack Seattle’s legendary rock club The Crocodile for a show that rocked the joint to its rafters.

Of the trio of Chameleons shows I’ve seen over the course of some twenty years — once in 1987 during their original run, once again during a reunion of the original lineup about ten years ago, and then finally this week — the Tuesday night show was by far the best of the three, even without the original band. For this tour, Burgess has instead surrounded himself with a group of much younger musicians who are now calling themselves Chameleons Vox.

Even so, there was no mistaking the fact that this was a Chameleons show — and a classic one at that. For the fans who’ve waited decades to hear nearly every great song from those first three great albums played live — this was truly a dream setlist. For their part, the members of this “new” band (who were probably all still attending grade school during the Chameleons original eighties run) more than rose to the task.

Indeed, Chameleons Vox are in many ways a much more formidable live outfit than the original group ever was — especially guitarists Andru Aesthetik and Justin Lomery. The younger guitarists recreated the dense textures of original members Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding without missing a lick, while raising the energy level of Burgess’ often dark and moody songs to an arena-rock level of bone-rattling intensity.

Taking the stage late at about eleven, the Chameleons kicked the two hour set off with the Strange Times opening track “Swamp Thing.” Mark Burgess — who has apparently shed his bass guitar to assume the mantle of full-time frontman for this tour — was not only in strong voice here, but was also much more animated and emotional than I can ever remember him being in past shows.

The intensity level continued to rise exponentially through letter perfect versions of “Monkeyland,” “Pleasure And Pain,” and the first surprise of the night, the rarely played (at least in previous shows I’ve seen) “In Answer.”

By the time the unmistakable drum intro of “Soul In Isolation” sounded though — Burgess had the crowd in the palm of his hand. Interjecting snippets of David Bowie’s “Be My Wife” and the Beatles’ songs “Get Back” and “Eleanor Rigby” into the mid-section, Burgess and the rest of the band literally tore the roof off the joint at this point. It was the best version of the song I’ve ever heard. The main set closed out with an equally roof-raising version of “Second Skin.”

The Chameleons then returned for a five song encore that began with a version of “Don’t Fall,” which again displayed the ample power chord muscle of these great young new guitarists. Burgess then sang an impromptu accapella version of “Tears” to a lucky female fan near the stage, before the band closed out with a beautifully layered version of “View From A Hill” that nearly matched the original from Script Of The Bridge.

The last time I saw Mark Burgess and the Chameleons play Seattle in a 2002 reunion of their original lineup, I correctly figured it was probably a one-time thing. Here’s hoping that with this new, younger and more energized Chameleons Vox lineup, Burgess sticks around a little longer this time.

With this group of young, willing and hungry new players, the newly re-energized “greatest band you’ve never heard of” really needs to make a new record.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • Mark and Joan

    Great review Glen and so glad you got to see the Chameleons again in their new guise. We saw them three times over this past summer and the band was tight and explosive at each show. Mark has seemingly found the right combination this time around. You are right, Mark and his new VOX group should record and soon!

  • someone

    just a minor correction, when the band came out for their first encore, they first played Fan and the Bellows, then dont fall…then splitting in two. :)

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Sorry about that…I tried to get a copy of the setlist afterwards to avoid that very type of error going on memory alone. Set order aside, it was still a great show. Thanx for the comment.

  • Justin

    This show has definitely set the bar incredibly high for everything else coming through seattle this fall/winter. What an absolutely jaw dropping performance!

  • Candybowl

    here’s my review – I had a different take, but it’s all good…

  • John Dawson

    In review of all their recorded live material, you’re totally right Glen, this line-up is absolutely the most solid and energetic. I would attribute some of this to, yes, a clearly much younger line-up. However, the bulk of the change being the refreshed state of Mark. He is back with a band that sounds more Chameleons, than the Chameleons’ had sounded with the original line-up. I had never expected such an impeccable and charged performance from the modern Mark Burgess. That night not a man or woman in the band or crowd were a day over 21, principally the Chameleons Vox’s lead singer Mark Burgess.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Well said John, and thanks for making me feel less old with that last comment. So, assuming this is who I think it is, how was Portland tonight?

    -Glen

  • Greg Barbrick

    Nice review Glen, sounds like it was a great show. Wish I had been there.

    Greg

  • John Dawson

    Your very welcome Glen and the Portland show is tonight. I will post a comment here to let you know how it goes. I am gonna jump the gun though and assume it is going to be awesome lol.

  • No One

    Anyone there have the complete setlist? Minor errors aside, just reading this glowing review knowing and I’m not going to be see any of the Vox tour is killin’ me.

  • Ken

    Great review, an accurate description of the band and what I witnessed at the Crocodile. At first we were like “Who are these kids next to Mark,” but they turned out to be very professional. Initially I was in disbelief at how well they replicated the Chameleons sound, but after I got over that I just let myself drown in the SOUND. So glad Mark delivered the songs with true passion and appreciation for the fans; it was clear he was not simply dragging out some old tunes to make extra cash. And yes, what you called the “dream setlist”…song after treasured song I never expected to hear at a small club gig with non-original members, but they tore up the club with every single song. The best show I’ve seen in years…and possibly the best $10 show anyone will ever see. Was severely tempted to drive to Portland to see the show again…