A live show?

Who: John Foxx and the Maths

Where: The Cargo, Shoreditch, London

When: 5th September 2012

Is it live or is it Memorex?

Way back in time that was a tag-line for an advert for a cassette tape, back in the era when the Walkman was key to the music listener. Now if you don’t remember cassette tapes, I’m afraid you’re going to have google them. Unlike vinyl records there is no good reason (nostalgia aside) why they should make a comeback.

The phrase came to mind watching John Foxx and the Maths at the Cargo in Shoreditch, London. The last time I saw the Maths they performed as a 4-piece. There were the three who performed on the evening I’m reviewing here (John Foxx: vocals, keyboards; Hannah Peel: keyboards, and electric violin; and Benge: synthesised drum pads) and a 4th Serafina Steer on bass. Tonight, Ms Steer is engaged in forwarding her solo career and consequently cannot play that role.

John Foxx

The most significant fact is that no-one is called upon to replace her and the band rely more on backing track and samples than last time they played live. Now, my expectation of how much a band will play “live” is dependent on the type of music I’m listening to. I would expect less dependence on backing tracks from a rock or jazz band than from a keyboard-driven synthesiser band like the Maths but as so much tonight is pre-recorded and even backing voices appear without anyone opening their mouth, I wonder whether, for my taste, this show did perhaps cross a line.

It wasn’t the only performance that I rated lower than last time. Support act, Tara Busch performed a conceptual piece (“I Speak Machine”) which was just a little too serious and sombre for my liking. Last time out she had included a Carpenters cover and whilst I’m certainly no fan of the late Karen Carpenter and her brother Richard, it made the tone a little less highbrow and relaxed than tonight’s very worthy performance.

Tara Busch

The main act were more engaging. Mr Foxx is back at the heights of his ability as a charismatic lead vocalist and he has the audience where he wants them in a way that we haven’t seen since his days with Ultravox!. The set is made up of tracks from the first Maths album Interplay, the second recent album The Shape of Things and the forthcoming third Maths album. There are also three early solo singles and two other tracks from the “Metamatic” album and “Dislocation” from his days with that band I mentioned a moment ago.

Benge

Curiously, there is nothing from the other three early solo albums or anything at all from his extended tenure working with Louis Gordon.

The older tracks that are used fit well with the Maths’ own material and none of the set sounds out of place but there is still the question of whether more of the sound could have been more truly live. For my money, this is the weakest concert John has given since his “comeback” in the days of “Shifting City”. I felt the dilemma when I watched the soundcheck before the show and the actual performance didn’t change my mind.

Mr Foxx was more than fashionably late for the soundcheck but when everything can be made to happen at the press of a key there is not much to practice but more time is spent on getting the echo right on the lead vocal and making sure everyone on the stage can hear that pre-recorded part of the music in their speakers. Foxx was confident and enjoying himself but something was missing and I suspect it was the element of risk. For my money the first date with the Maths as a 4-piece had been the best Foxx gig I’ve seen for several years –  and I do see most of them. This date at the Cargo was perhaps the weakest. It wasn’t bad in any way, it just lacked that immediacy.

The venue at Cargo is the ideal venue for John Foxx but on this date that ingredient was missing. No-one driving was perhaps the highlight of the night for me but my favourite recent Foxx song “Interplay” was AWOL.

Another reviewer said in his review of this show that Foxx is never “out-of-date or synthetic”. Foxx’s music is always cutting edge and amongst my favourite music. He never seems old-fashioned. He is beyond fashion and trend. He reminds me of Bowie (before his current retirement) in the way that he is willing to absorb the current trends almost by osmosis and synthesise them into something new, exciting and relevant. In this, he has few who stand as tall as he does. He is a giant of contemporary and experimental music.

But “synthetic”? This show may have lost the hard edge of the best of his work and relied too much on the machines that he used to be in complete charge of. I hope for a more convincing and real performance next time out.

Set List:

Shatterproof

He’s a Liquid

Evergreen

No-one driving

Evidence

The Running Man

My Town

Burning Car

Catwalk

Underpass

The Good Shadow

Summerland

Walk

Dislocation

Plaza

Talk

A New Kind of Man

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