Underground Postpunk legends stuff a weekend night venue to capacity, redefining "nostalgia show"
Chameleons Vox – Middle East Downstairs, Cambridge MA – September 16, 2017
For a 57 year old who never really had a hit in the US, Mark Burgess – the Vox in Chameleons Vox – could be doing a whole lot worse. As tonight’s show at the Middle East Downstairs gets underway, the basement bar is swathed dreamy psychedelic lighting and I am shoulder to shoulder with what appears to be a sell-out crowd, a good third of who are clad in funereal black and sporting magnificent whole-can-of-hairspray hairdos, a’la 1983. Not coincidentally, that’s the year that Burgess and his band The Chameleons (or Chameleons UK if you will) released their first album “Script of the Bridge” which became the first of their sinister post-punk offerings to lash US College Radio airwaves with their booming rhythm section and layers of tuneful, stinging guitar buzz. But 30 years later, this should be a nostalgia show, right? So where did this flank of fresh faced goths come from and how did they find out about the Chameleons Vox?
I wind my way up front through throngs of bouncing, air-punching fans as the first verse of “Monkeyland” sprawls across the room. From the vitality on stage and the audience enthusiasm you’d think that Chameleons Vox were in their prime rather than largely revisiting songs that were released three decades ago, but maybe timing is the band’s secret weapon? Though Burgess declares from the stage his voice is shot tonight, his seasoned vocal timbre breathes fresh meaning into the band’s dreamy, world-weary tunes. Storming through hypnotic versions of “Up the Down Escalator,” “Here Today,” “Second Skin,” “Thursday’s Child,” and a cool mashup of “In Answer” with a bit of The Clash’s White Riot & Joy Division’s Transmission thown in, the crowd are delirious with adoration. When “Swamp Thing” arrives (surprisingly) mid-set, and Burgess intones the refrain “Not enough pleasure, too much pain,” it’s hard not to reflect on the passing of original Chameleons’ drummer and longtime collaborator John Lever at the tender age of 55 this spring. Experience makes these songs pop in a way only hinted at when Burgess as a younger, a more fresh-faced Mancunian more than 35 years ago.
Like old rock fans do, a good 30% of the crowd hit the road before the encore comes, missing a heart pounding rendition of “Don’t Fall.” It’s the final revelation in a gripping night of music which shows clearly why this under the radar “nostalgia” act can draw and mesmerize a sold out weekend crowd.