If ever a fallen idol was in need of reinvention, it's surely Boy George, whose last public appearance was in a New York courtroom. His solo career petered out more than a decade ago, and he was last seen over here on the revival circuit with Culture Club.
Compared with those arena dates, it's something of a comedown to find him in a venue with a capacity of just 350, even if some fans did come all the way from the US for it. But this is a deliberately low-key show to test out a batch of new songs and unveil a new musical direction - reggae.
There is considerable surprise among an audience made up largely of hard-core fans when a large and ebullient Jamaican woman - Gisette, apparently - livelies up the crowd with some ribald repartee. Then, the all-white band break into an impressive approximation of roots reggae, and Shabba George, looking slimmer than of late, takes to the stage.
He's in a typically understated outfit: a jacket emblazoned with sequinned peace signs, a T-shirt featuring a glittery Queen, and a trademark Philip Treacy hat. He has shed a few pounds, and the black-neck era (when a healthy dollop of slap gave George the semblance of a chin) seems, thankfully, to be over.
His new direction isn't really a surprise: reggae was the sound that brought him to fame in 1982 with "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?". But he has delved deep into Jamaican music for inspiration and this is no pastiche.
The opening tune is called "Czeck", and it's the first of a succession of breezy pop-reggae numbers of the type favoured by UB40. "This ain't love, it's a new kind of high," George sings, breaking off in the middle to toast in a full-blown Jamaican accent. Astonishingly, he pulls it off.
A reggaefied version of Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way" - surely a comeback hit in waiting - is followed by a sing-along version of "Everything I Own", his last chart-topper, back in 1987.
Beside them, George's own songs stand up well, and demonstrate some lyrical bite. "Inhuman Nature" is dedicated to Tony Blair, and "Out of Fashion", from the stage play Taboo, shows that George can mock himself, singing: "You're out of fashion. Your moment's over. A living tragedy."
In the dancehall-style "Ragga Music", George reclaims the music from the homophobes, in what must surely be ragga's first gay-pride anthem: "In Jamaica, dem a batty boy," he sings with a happy smile. "Ina di UK - dem a batty boy."
Halfway through, things change and the band reverts to the sort of soul-pop ballads that were Culture Club's trademark. Arms wave as a new song, "Hiroshima" - "about a boy" - injects a Japanese motif into the kind of big ballad that was always a forte.
"Shadow Boxing" coasts along on a gently bubbling soul groove, George's voice as full of yearning as it ever was. Then it's party time. "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" prompts a mass sing-along, and the closing "Karma Chameleon" causes pandemonium, as the entire audience parties like it's 1982.
Comebacks are never easy in pop music, but at least half of Boy George's new songs match Culture Club for melody and catchiness, and his joy at being back on stage is clear to see. No doubt about it - the boy done good.Reuse content