In just a year and a half, Men at Work has gone from being an Australian bar band to international pop stardom. The Australian quintet made its Washington debut at the sold-out Wax Museum last night and executed its catchy, intriguing songs as crisply and efficiently on stage as it has on record. Keyboardist Greg Ham, guitarist Ron Strykert and, especially, lead singer Colin Hay write hypnotic melody hooks. Much as the Police do, Men at Work lightened up Caribbean rhythms to back these melodies with a brisk, breezy momentum. Like the Police's Sting, Hay delivered the vocals with an understated nasal tenor that hinted more than it stated.
Men at Work proved so accessible and attractive -- especially on its current hit single, "Who Can It Be Now?," and potential hit singles, "I Can See It in Your Eyes" and "People Just Love to Play With Words" -- that the band is likely to be a major commercial force for years to come. Just the same, there are limitations. The group lacked an outstanding soloist; Ham's sax solos added refreshing color but little invention. While the elusive songs were intriguing, they never made a strong statement, nor did the band ever transcend its pop skills to provide real passion.
Mental as Anything, another Australian quintet, opened the show. The group was far less accomplished than Men at Work, but in some ways was more interesting. The band flashed a quirky, humorous approach to a smorgasbord of rock and pop styles that recalled Nick Lowe or Squeeze. The group boasted a truly inventive instrumentalist in guitarist Martin Bomdassa, a clean tenor vocalist in Martin Plaza and a wacky stage personality in Greedy Smith. All three are talented songwriters, but the transfer from record to stage was muddled by the band's sloppiness. The best songs, though, like "Too Many Times," were fueled by a rockabilly momentum that brought the band's potential to the surface.