Few origin stories are as fitting as the one told by the members of The B-52s. The Athens natives, best known for their quirky visage and distinctive take on new wave, got their start after sharing a cocktail known as a “flaming volcano” at a Chinese restaurant in 1976. “It’s literally a ceramic volcano and you put Sterno in the hole up top (and) light it… all around it is a tropical drink and you share it with a bunch of straws,” singer Fred Schneider told Stuff in 2017.
The drink was potent enough to get the five original members jamming at a friend’s house later that night. Four decades later and the band is down to a trio (guitarist Ricky Wilson passed away in 1985 and guitarist/drummer Keith Strickland retired from touring in 2012), but it’s easy to imagine Schneider sharing a post-show potable with the other two voices that helped shape the band’s unique sound, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson.
The band is celebrating the 40th anniversary of their self-titled debut by hitting the road with OMD and Berlin, both bands just a few months shy of the same milestone. Their recent stop at in New Orleans had the same energy of that party you went to that one time in the 80s – you know the one – you and your friends are still talking about it.
Berlin set the tone for the night opening with a trio of upbeat tracks from their first two albums. MTV favorite “No More Words” from 1984’s Love Life was followed by “The Metro” and “Masquerade” from 1982’s Pleasure Victim. Next up was “Show Me Tonight”, an upbeat track about middle age from their latest album. They slowed the set down for their best known song, “Take My Breath Away”, from 1987’s Top Gun, and “Transcendence”, the title track from the new album. They ended their show with their first ever single, “Sex (I’m A)” and a cover of AC/DC’s, “Highway to Hell”.
Berlin’s Terri Nunn, John Crawford, and David Diamond haven’t toured together since 1986, yet their tight, eight song set showed no signs of a decades long break. This was in large part thanks to Christopher Olivas, Dave Schulz, and Carlton Bost, who have filled out the Berlin line-up with Nunn for more than a decade. Blending original and contemporary band members rarely works, but this case, it made for a fuller sound and festive atmosphere.
OMD was next to take the stage at the Saenger Theater. The band is best known to US audiences for the single “If You Leave” from the Pretty in Pink Soundtrack, but founding members Paul Humphreys and Andy McCluskey started out writing Kraftwerk-inspired electronic tracks in the late 70s. Their self-titled first album has been called one of the best of the genre and is often credited for inspiring a variety of musicians like Howard Jones, Moby, Vince Clarke (Depeche Mode), Mark Ronson, ZZ Top, and Sugarland.
Humphreys and McCluskey, joined on tour with Martin Cooper and Stuart Kershaw, opened their set with “Enola Gay”, an early single about the bombing of Hiroshima that proved even songs with depressing topics can get people out of their seats to dance. Much of the set consisted of songs that would feel familiar to US audiences like the singles “So in Love”, “(Forever) Live and Die”, and “Dreaming”. Songs like “Tesla Girls”, “Locomotion” and 2010’s “History of Modern (Part 1)” may not have been as recognizable, but they succeeded in getting the crowd to do more than simply swaying.
McCluskey was a charming and energetic front man constantly interacting with the audience. His banter back and forth with Humphreys had a light-hearted ease that was fun to watch. It was easy to picture the two as teenagers exciting writing “Electricity”, the song that started their career and ended their set.
Another brief intermission ended with the venue going completely dark. A large video screen began to glow as the satellite sounds that open, “Planet Claire” played over the sound system. The song was the first song on the first B-52s album and it was a fitting way to start the two-minute video career retrospective encompassing the band’s long career. By the time Wilson, Pierson, and Schneider took the stage to the opening bars of “Private Idaho”, most of the audience was already on its feet.
The band began pouring through hits looking every bit as unconventional as they did when they were playing friends’ parties in Athens in the late 70s. Wilson wore a silver one-piece with outlandish, pointed shoulders, while Pierson was covered head-to-toe in green fringe. Schneider looked almost sensible clad in black from head to toe – except for the dayglo shoulder straps adorning the front of his shirt. Even bassist Tracy Ann Wormworth got in on the action, wearing a black sequined minidress and silver ankle boots.
The B-52s have been regulars on the summer circuit for more than a few years, but there was something special about this tour announcement. Perhaps because 2019 not only marks the 40th anniversary of the release of the first album, but the 30th anniversary of the quadruple-platinum selling, Cosmic Thing. The band seemed to feel the same energy because the sounded tighter, more connected, than they have in years.
The setlist paid homage to the Cosmic Thing anniversary with a third of the songs being pulled from the album. Pierson and Wilson’s harmonies sounded pitch perfect on “Roam” and “Deadbeat Club”, with Schneider adding his distinctive voice to the group for “Channel Z” and the title track.
The rest of the set featured songs from the band’s earlier albums including, “Mesopotamia”, “Dance This Mess Around” and “Party Out of Bounds”. The interesting dichotomy with the B-52s has always been that while they’ve created some of the most engaging music in the genre, they don’t physically engage much on stage – either with the audience or each other. One notable exception was during the bubbly title track from 2008’s Funplex, when the band seemed more relaxed and connected than during any other song outside of the last three songs of the night.
They ended the regular set with their biggest hit, “Love Shack”, coming together to the front of the stage and connecting with an elated audience. “Planet Claire” was the first song in the encore and it felt like a time machine back to 1979 with the three singers launching into the same oddly enchanting mannerisms they used at their start. Ending the night with “Rock Lobster” was the perfect throwback for a crowd still ready to sink “down, down, down” and watch a giant, glittery lobster dance on stage.
The audience spilled into the warm New Orleans night still singing along to B-52s songs. Forty years may have passed since the first album, but the band can still throw the best party of the summer.