Gig review: Boy George and Culture Club at First Direct Arena, Leeds

'We are Culture Club,' frontman Boy George tells a packed-out First Direct Arena in Leeds following the hip-swivelling quasi-industrial funk of opener God & Love, 'a living, breathing soap opera-slash-reality show.'

Boy George and Culture Club.
Boy George and Culture Club.

He fluffs the gold tassels on his jacket and grins at guitarist Roy Hay. “The drama on this stage would kill a beginner.” There is little such hysteria tonight; this incarnation of the seminal new wave outfit are a well-honed, slickly professional unit who know how to put on a polished performance and do so with a smooth grandeur.

The band – George, Hay, bassist Mikey Craig and drummer Jon Moss, the latter of whom is absent from this leg – may have only lasted half-a-decade in their original heyday, but the mark they left on musical consciousness remains indelible.

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Their road to return has been tumultuous since; even this rebooted incarnation has been faced with teething troubles, shelving a full UK arena tour at short notice in late 2014. As such, this stop by West Yorkshire is something of an overdue arrival.

The wait has been worth aesthetically; this is an opulent, arena-pop spectacular only a troupe of scantily-clad dancers away from the chart heavyweights of today, bathed in neon pink and electric blue lights, like a futuristic Top of the Pops set.

On a musical level too, it comes with something of a deeper poignancy. George’s timbre has noticeably deepened since their peak in 1983; his voice is more akin to the raspy croon of Tom Jones now. It gives added gravitas; Runaway Train’s Philly Soul benediction and the horn-drenched sobriety-paean Different Man are excellent, while Time (Clock of the Heart) and Victims are turned into smoky, jazz-dashed torch anthems.

They mostly stick to the golden oldies; only their first two albums get a look in outside of reunion record Life, though there are some surprises. George dedicates his white-reggae solo cover of Bread’s Everything I Own to radio DJ Chris Moyles and Leeds Rhinos forward Stevie Ward, who are in the house tonight; a bouncy snippet of Wham’s I’m Your Man slips into a pounding Church of the Poison Mind.

Relatively rakish if faithful covers of David Bowie and T. Rex lift the crowd to their feet in a party mood; a closing Karma Chameleon keeps them on it as George doffs his sparkly hat and slips off stage.

It’s certainly better late than never for this club.