The band was entirely of the ad-hoc, pickup variety and there was no rehearsal, apart from the sound-check. Nobody, including the people onstage, knew what to expect. And yet, former Chameleon singer Mark Burgess' performance at The Bell House was kind of awesome; or as someone else said to me, "accidentally epic."
I'm a pretty big Chameleons fan. I count their three original albums as some of my favorites of the '80s and I own more than my fair share of BBC Sessions, live rehearsals, etc. I went to all the band's shows when they reformed in 2002, nights that I thought I'd never see. The band broke up shortly after that and I figured that was the last we'd hear.
But that all changed when Burgess came to America to hang out with a new flame he'd been corresponding with. He thought he might play an acoustic show or two while here, but upon hearing Burgess was in the States, musicians came out of the woodwork offering to be his backing band. And those folks showed up at the Bell House and winged it, though both drummer Duncan Arsenault and guitarist Roger Lavallee played Burgess' show in Boston a couple weeks ago and are both in Curtain Society together. The Boston show was a little rough, from what I could tell via YouTube clips, as was this one at times, but everyone was amazed at how well it all worked.
"Welcome to 'A Night of a Thousand Bassists,'" Burgess joked as he took the stage before launching into a trio of songs from 1986's Strange Times: "Swamp Thing," "Mad Jack" and "Tears," all of which featured Versus singer Richard Balyut on bass. Burgess was only slightly exaggerating, as Balyut was the first of four bassists that night. "Swamp Thing" is one of the Chameleons more complex songs and at times I thought it might all fall apart, but they held it together. Richard Balyut's brother, Ed, also played bass for two songs ("Up the Down Escalator" and "Paradiso"). The other bassists were Gerard Hammill (who I recognized from Other Music) and Frankie Deserto who probably did the best of the four and played for almost half the set. He was singing along to nearly every songs and later wrote on Twitter, one of the greatest nights on my life to play bass on second skin.'' A guy named Shawn played second guitar as well as keyboards. Oh, and Jack Rabid played drums on "Tears." How could I forget?
The night got better as everyone onstage got more relaxed and the 200 or so attendees got more into it. Chameleons never had the biggest fanbase, but the might have one of the more dedicated ones. I think one of the things that draws people into the Chameleons is Burgess' big heart and positive vibe. Some lump the Chameleons in with '80s goth, and while the band's cover art and sound sometimes leaned that way, they were also capable of soaring pop full of hope. A good example of which was "Childhood," which Burgess said the Chameleons rarely played live but this adhoc band knocked out of the park. Burgess said the band picked the setlist, and if he messed up any of the lyrics I didn't really notice.
There were a couple times where Burgess went off the map, but the band managed to follow his lead pretty well. We got a 15 song set covering most of the hits and a few surprises like "Childhood," "Paradiso" and "Perfume Garden." The lights came up and everyone was smiling. I went up to Bell House talent booker Skippy after the show and we were both like "It shouldn't have been that great." But it was.
At the end of the show, Burgess brought everyone who played that night back on stage to thank them:
SETLIST: Swamp Thing | Mad Jack | Tears | Perfume Garden | Childhood | Nostalgia | The Fan & the Bellows | Up the Down Escalator | Paradiso | Less Than Human | Second Skin | Soul in Isolation | ENCORE: Don't Fall | In Shreds | Splitting in Two
Here's video of "In Shreds" from Lawrence Lewitinn's YouTube page. He's got about half the set up there:
Opening was local band Blacklist whose delayed guitars clearly owe more than a little to The Chameleons. And the Comsat Angels, Bolshoi and Death Cult. Yes it's pure pastiche, but they do it really really well and the songs are good. So few modern bands get the goth influences right, I gotta give them props. Their debut album, Midnight Of The Century, sounds good really loud. There weren't that many people at the Bell House when they went on, and a big room like that is hard to play in such circumstances but they held their own.