You’d think the giant red digital display alternately flashing “OMD” and “SOLD OUT!” would have effectively stated the rundown of activities at the legendary Vic Theater on Friday, March 16th. Maybe the chilly Chicago wind kept passersby from looking up and getting a dash of cold across their faces. Whatever the case, the phrase “What’s going on tonight?” was heard and patiently endured more than a few times by the long line of mostly fortysomethings that snaked down North Sheffield Ave.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, OMD to their legion of longtime followers, hadn’t been in the Chicago area since their opening slot on Barenaked Ladies’ Last Summer on Earth Tour at Ravinia back in June of 2016; they hadn’t headlined in the area since 2013. As great as it was to see them barnstorming the States again, their short set in ’16 barely whetted fans’ appetites.
This night however, would be something to remember, and Chicago music lovers were primed to be satisfied with a headlining gig by their heroes from across the pond.
OMD has always occupied a unique position in the kind of synthpop that seemed to personify the ‘80s. While bands such as Depeche Mode painted their odes to isolation with an almost machine-like sense of distance, OMD seemed to take the opposite approach. Their music was always a bit warmer than their peers, more intimately detailing the human condition for the youth of that era—Kraftwerk with a heartbeat, with maybe a cologne-spotted dash of New Romanticism. I suspect that’s why their live show seemed to allow the packed theater audience to throw away their inhibitions and proudly wear their joy on their sleeves.
Touring behind their latest record The Punishment of Luxury, itself a late-career stunner, the band opened with two songs from the album. The moody and graceful “Ghost Star” dovetailed nicely into “Isotype”, a song that contains a synth hook as memorable as anything else in their catalogue. Though in the US, the band is mostly known for one song by the very casual listener (we’ll get to that in a minute), songs like “Enola Gay” and “Tesla Girls” were embraced by a crowd that quite clearly had the good sense to know that it’s never just about the big radio hits.
Strapping on a bass guitar, frontman Andy McCluskey stated “I’ll give you a clue: when I put the bass on, it’s an old song,” before the band launched into the magnetic “Messages” from their self-titled debut.
One great aspect of the show was the reminder that McCluskey is truly a genuine force of nature. “I’ll let you in on a secret: you dance like nobody’s watching. It’s worked for me,” he said. And the guy wasn’t playing around: true to his word, he spent nearly the entire show in a seemingly constant state of motion. While some have described his dancing style as a “greatest hits collection of new wave dance moves,” it always reminded me of an android who’s discovering the sheer thrill of music for the first time. Either way, it was remarkable that a guy in his late 50s can move like that, and sustain it effortlessly for an entire show. It wasn’t just about the moves, of course. Both McCluskey and fellow vocalist and synth-god Paul Humphreys sounded identical to their classic recordings, even if Humphreys was battling a cold. His turns on the mic singing songs like “Forever (Live & Die)” from The Pacific Age and “Souvenir” from 1981’s Architecture & Morality served as gentle counterpoints to McCluskey’s more emotionally charged vibe.
From the introductory note, the Vic Theater crowd was already in full-on adoration mode, but when McCluskey explained that the next song was written after they spent some time with a guy named John “who I believe was from Chicago,” the crowd lost its ever-loving mind. The song of course was “If You Leave” from the John Hughes-directed “brat pack” manifesto Pretty in Pink and, from that point on, the crowd went from ecstatic to outright pandemonium for the rest of the evening. It was wonderful seeing the band feed off of the energy and smiling at each other in a “Can you believe this?” display of happiness.
Martin Cooper, who has been a part of OMD since 1980, admirably handled a healthy chunk of the synth work with the occasional tasty sax solo, and drummer Stuart Kershaw, part of the band since ’91, kept the band on track with a powerful and nuanced performance.
Wrapping up the evening with their very first Factory Records single—“Electricity,” written when they were the ripe-old-age of sixteen—the band brought everything full circle, ending it where it all began. Leaving the stage as elated and exhausted as the audience, McCluskey promised it would not take them long to return.
Opening the show was GGOOLLDD, fronted by vocalist Margaret Butler, who led the five-piece band through a tight set of punchy, swirling electronic jams. Butler, who also adheres to the “Dance like no one is watching” credo, stalked the stage, making up her dance moves as she went along, and charming the audience with silly jokes: “I went to a zoo. It only had one animal. A dog. It was a Shih Tzu.” She ended the set, lying flat on the stage, extolling the virtues of OMD. “They’re actually a great fucking band,” she said. | Jim Ousley