The drummer for Peter Murphy’s backing band received enthusiastic applause both when walking on stage and later as he was introduced with the rest of the band. He looked like the others: dark clothing, short, black, gelled hair with sideburns. So why was he singled out? Because he is Kevin Haskins, former drummer for a band Murphy used to front named Bauhaus. A leading light of the rarely defined “gothic” movement, that band existed from the late ‘70s to early ‘80s. Since then Murphy has released 5 solo albums and an EP of enjoyable, if often safe, material.
He surely attracts some audience members because of his former job at the front of Bauhaus. And for some, a Murphy concert still—as a bonus—provides an excuse to put on black lipstick on a Monday night. Not that the crowd was here for nostalgia. Rather, they were eager to hear Murphy’s solo work, and were given a typically professional Murphy performance. The set opened with a stirring cover of Pere Ubu’s rocker “Final Solution” (admittedly I heard this song as a Living Colour cover before I heard Murphy’s earlier version).
20 Mar 2000: 9:30 Club Washington, DC
This track appears on his first album, Should the World Fail to Fall Apart, and on Murphy’s new compilation Wild Birds 1985-1995, the Best of Peter Murphy, the latter the ostensible reason for the current tour. Murphy’s set included the majority of the so-called “best of” list but also focused on the fifth album Cascade (five tracks including the soaring “Wild Birds Flock to Me” and the show-closing “Huuvola”) and the 1998 EP Recall (three songs including the grinding, re-worked “Roll Call”). The highlight however was the back to back performances of “I’ll Fall With Your Knife” and “Crystal Wrists.” These are Muphy’s two prettiest songs given excellent treatment. Murphy sang all the verses of the latter song before finally singing the chorus, making the chorus even more exultant than normal.
The audience enthusiastically applauded these songs and the whole performance, but because it was a Monday night—with a full week of work stretching ahead the next morning—the crowd was always a bit restrained. So thoroughly professional is Murphy, however, one senses he cares not at all what night it is. At times his stage actions seem a little too studied, too well thought-out. He knows where the lights are and how wide their field of light is and when he wants to be backlit or lit from below. And when something is not just right he feels compelled to note it out loud during the performance. In this lies the most fascinating component of seeing Peter Murphy live.
I have seen Murphy solo twice and fronting the Bauhaus reunion tour last year, and in all three shows were moments when he drew attention to imperfections in sound or lighting. At this show when his guitar didn’t sound right he looked at the soundboard and said “not enough Tim.” At another point one of his headphones quit working so he stopped the show, told us to wait, and a stagehand stood on stage for a few minutes to replace it. (An aside: this resulted in the evening’s most amusing moment. Due to calls from the audience Murphy handed his mic to Haskins who recited a poem “The Lion and Albert” (a.k.a. “Albert and the Lion”) by Marriott Edgar.) No performance can go off without a hitch of some sort, but Murphy’s common practice of drawing attention to the errors may be a result of anger and a desire to hold up those who made the mistake for public embarrassment. But I think Murphy has an almost Brechtian impulse to expose the strings, the mechanisms behind his elaborate show which includes particular effects for individual songs—like odd screen that would momentarily hold his shadow during the song “Disappearing.” It is a strange experience to witness Murphy willfully disrupt the meticulously constructed illusion of his performance.
I’ll note one other moment that leads me to believe this about Murphy. After doing the song “Indigo Eyes” alone with an electric guitar, Murphy went to the wing, came back with another guitar and said that he normally goes back stage at this point to wait for applause. He suggested we pretend he had, and with a slightly tired smile he added “sometimes it’s a bit of an act isn’t?”
For all his perfectionism of his act, one wonders if Murphy was hearing the same sound mix as the audience. The lead guitar was often hard to pick out of the mix, and sometimes seemed drowned out by the keyboards positioned immediately behind the guitar. At one point Murphy stopped a song introduction to request we applaud a guitar solo by Peter DiStephano (Porno for Pyros). I hadn’t really applauded because though I could see him working hard, I couldn’t really hear what the he was doing. But Murphy’s voice came through clearly at all times. And even when seeming to flub his guitar playing on “Indigo Eyes,” this evening proved that whether he continues alone or records with Haskins, Daniel Ash, and David J. as a reunited Bauhaus, Murphy has more engagingly self-aware performances left in him.
(Additional reporting by Karl Reinsch)