There were no obvious defects in Sunday's show by the Psychedelic Furs - guitars screamed, vocals warbled and fans swooned.
Nonetheless, when the five-member entourage left the stage after a second encore, there was a vaguely dissatisfying aftertaste - an amorphous feeling of disappointment one feels, perhaps, when a beguiling, exotic-looking pastry proves to be flat, sugary and lacking some essential ingredient that would make it extraordinary.The Furs, sad to say, were not extraordinary. Despite hit AM singles like "Pretty In Pink" to their credit along with a host of lesser-known alternative radio standards ("Love My Way," "House," "We Love You"), they still haven't quite made over the top.
To make matters worse, the Furs were not exactly in top form Sunday. Although they did manage to keep the overall volume below the pain threshold, Tim Butler's booming bass was far too loud and frequently drowned out John Ashton's guitar work, which is in many ways the backbone of the Furs' music. And Richard Butler, who, at his best, sounds like a somewhat earthier David Bowie, sounded hoarse and had trouble hitting notes on some songs.
The Furs are going for a slimmer sound these days, and it's probably an improvement overall. Gone are the overproduced tracks of "Midnight to Midnight" with its hit single "Heartbreak Beat." Today's Furs are opting for what the bassist Butler terms "a two-guitar attack" - lots of rough, distorted guitar without the once-standard horn section. It is an approach that works well on new material from their "Book of Days" album, but creates a somewhat hollow feel on older tunes.
Now, none of these observations should be taken as dismissing the Furs entirely, for in truth they weren't awful. Butler paced his cohorts through songs that spanned 10 years and seven albums - an impressive history that in itself proves the Furs are no average band. The Furs cut their teeth on the cryptic, angry music of London's primal punk rockers of the late 1970s, and it is to their credit that they have survived while so many of their contemporaries bit the dust.
Musically, the Furs are amply endowed. They are not, so to speak, tight, but they aren't trying to be. With Tim Butler (who is Richard Butler's younger brother) on bass and veteran Ashton on guitar, the Furs have a distinctive sound that blends punk power with loose, unstructured arrangements.
And while their sound is somewhat loose, the staging was not. Using simple, but remarkably effective lighting techniques, the Furs underscored their music without distracting from it. Ashton, for example, was sometimes bathed in a cross-fire of golden spotlights, while drummer Vince Ely's staccato thrashings were mirrored, blow for blow, in short bursts of light. At other times, the entire stage seemed awash in a mist of multi-colored light as overhead spot-lights spun through a kaleidoscope of colors at phenomenal speed.
Butler has also toned down his stage presence considerably from past incarnations. He has discarded both the pink frock and the leather jacket of earlier years and has instead turned to almost mundane green plaid shirts and pleated pants.
The Furs were at their best on songs like "House" and "Regrets," the latter of which featured acoustic guitar, no drums and and (I swear) a cello. These kinds of tunes show enormous potential, but in the end they served only to whet one's appetite for tastier morsels that, alas, did not materialize.