BIRMINGHAM 2004 REVIEWS December 2004

Zoe C

It's over 20 years since Phil Oakey recruited a couple of schoolgirls to fill out the ranks of The Human League, just into the decade that will forever haunt the massed ranks of synth-pop.

Far removed from the small seedy clubs, the League's current tour isn't done by halves as we learn from Phil as he name-checks each and every one involved over the course of the set.

The sharp white stage décor that's unveiled to the opening bars of "Mirror Man" pretty much sets the scene for the whole show - the two girls dressed at the front, wiggling in time to the music and singing the chorus; four men dressed in black on a raised platform playing guitar, drum-pads, synths and Apple computers and between them, refusing to stop in one place for any length of time, is Phil himself.

There's no question that they are able to give the fans what they want - catchy choruses to sing along with; but there was a question over the quality of the performance itself. It can't be forgotten that this was the last date of a long tour, and that was bound to have taken some strain, but individual voices didn't sparkle, stage behaviour was slick but somehow hollow and emotionless.

It wouldn't be fair to say that there weren't glorious moments - including a sense of irony: "Thank you Birmingham - you're my favourite city in the country right now". It's nostalgia good and proper, and I suspect the majority of the crowd wouldn't mind recapturing some of the spirit of the last twenty years. From the age of a lot of the men in the crowd, there'll probably be memories of teenage crushes on Susanne and Joanne too!

So what has changed? There are efforts to update some of the tracks for example with a very 'right-on' back projection bemoaning the Iraq war during "Heart Like A Wheel" and a number of strategically placed web-cams linked to the projector to beam live pictures onto the back wall. Ultimately however the audience want yesterday not today; they want to belt out the chorus to "Electric Dreams", "Lebanon" and "Mirror Man" nearly-in-time rather than be challenged. They want safe and reassuring Sound of the Crowd, they want entertainment not politics.

The weakest points of the set are the slow numbers. "Human" is strained to the point of being almost unbearable as Phil's voice fails to hold the attention, though most of the crowd probably couldn't be more forgiving.

By the time we've had 90 minutes of set and encores there are a lot of tired smiles in the house, not least of which on the stage. Phil, Joanne, Susanne, Neil, Dave, Rob & Nick can pack up, pat themselves on the back and head home...

...Speaking of props, what is it with the sheep...?