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.