Friday, October 06, 2023

Midge Ure Celebrates His Big Birthday in Style

How would you celebrate your 70th birthday? Maybe have a few friends over to the village hall, some soft food, nothing spicy, plenty of space for the grandchildren to run off their cake and jelly? Home in time for your favourite soap opera? Maybe push the boat out with a glass of sherry?

Not for Midge Ure, former frontman of 80s electronic pop pioneers Ultravox. Ure chose to celebrate with a few friends in London. Around 5,000 friends, at the Royal Albert Hall, performing the seminal, ground-breaking, genre-defining album ‘Vienna’ in its entirety, marking both his 70th birthday and the 40th anniversary of ‘Vienna’, give or take a couple of years.

Ure’s set covered an acoustic build-up in the first half followed by a selection of favourites surrounding ‘Vienna’ in the second. Maybe 20, 10, or even 5 years ago, Ure would try to sing in the same key that he could manage in his youth, forgetting or perhaps ignoring the effect that the years have on the human voice. In this show, and the tour which preceded it, he has thought much more carefully about both the set and the arrangements. With a combination of clever transpositions, long instrumental sections and smart, interesting song choices, the audience would think that Ure’s vocal skills had never changed, or perhaps even improved.

The show opened with Ure walking out onto stage, picking up an acoustic guitar and performing ‘Dear God’ from the album ‘Answers to Nothing’ in a confident, passionate style reminiscent of his 1992 tour ‘Out Alone’ in which he… went out, alone. It was a stripped back approach which surprised people who had pigeonholed Ultravox as a synth-dependent new wave sound and which kick started a fashion of other artists doing the same thing. Ure’s experience in removing the layers of electronica and production gloss and presenting the raw essence of his songs has paid off.

He was then joined on stage by two strings and a piano for a hauntingly beautiful version of ‘Lament’ from the Celtic themed fourth Ultravox album of the same name (seventh if you count the original John Foxx years).

Breathe’ completed the quartet set, a song which was already presented in an acoustic style on the album of the same name.

A quick change of musicians brought in drums, mandolin and keyboard for ‘The Maker’, a song which is perhaps the alter-ego of the opening ‘Dear God’.

The pace gradually picked up with each song until Ure took a break, leaving his support band, India Electric Company, to enjoy the spotlight for a while. This stylish, precise folk-pop trio are Ure’s long standing live support band, both warming up for him and then serving as his band. It’s another smart way for Ure to conserve his voice, with a similar pacing to the way that Van Morrison uses an ensemble of talented performers to create a show that orbits around him but doesn’t solely rely on him.

As this first half drew to a close, the minimalist acoustic staging, white light and stylish presentation faded and the LED lights, additional keyboards and other instruments in the background gave some hints about what was to come next. Clearly, this was Midge Ure’s night, in one of the most iconic venues in the world, and he was going to milk every moment of it.

Post interval, the Hall exploded with the hard synth overture ‘Yellow Pearl’, a song which featured as the theme tune to BBC’s long running Top of the Pops and which Ure co-wrote with Thin Lizzy front man Phil Lynott, revealing Ure’s exceptionally broad musical heritage. In this part of the set, Ure had a great opportunity to showcase the breadth of his talents, from hard core Bauhaus post-punk electronica to hard-edged guitar rock, calling back to his days as guitarist in Thin Lizzy. With 5,000 backing singers, the joy on Ure’s face was obvious. He really was having a ball.

The main course, the entire ‘Vienna’ album, of course went down very well. As iconic as the album is, it’s not really something you would dance to and so the night ended with another selection of upbeat fan favourites.

Ure thanked the audience for their perseverance in getting to the gig, due mainly to the travel disruption caused by industrial action from London Underground and the national rail operators. Several attempts at ‘Happy Birthday’ broke out across the theatre, sadly Ure didn’t hear them and instead ploughed into an energetic closing batch of songs that had everyone on their feet; ‘Fade to Grey’, ‘Dancing With Tears in My Eyes’, ‘Serenade’, ‘The Voice’ and the finale, ‘Hymn’.

Closing a spectacular birthday celebration that would linger in the memories of everyone there, Midge Ure is no doubt making plans for many more to come.

Peter Freeth



Images: Peter Freeth

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