At the Capital Centre last night, Boy George was the proverbial good time had by all. Looking like the incandescent offspring of a shogun and the NBC peacock, the effervescent Boy led Culture Club through a 90-minute musical romp encompassing unallayed exuberance and enough pure pop hooks to hang an entire wardrobe on.
For 15,000 fans, the concert was confirmation that there is considerable art beneath the fashion. George et al. may look intriguing, but they also happen to sound terrific and it's a serious mistake to dismiss them as so much cultural ephemera. If their fans brought a little extra fashion to Prince George's County -- dread-pigtails, black bowlers and sloganeering Britdesign abounded -- then Culture Club countered with a full, forceful sound and a state-of-the-art video package that left little to the imagination except room for enjoyment.
In less than three years, Culture Club has established impeccable credentials as a pop outfit. The outlandish and fey Boy George, looking like a bag lady let loose on Rodeo Drive, is obviously and deservedly the focal point, but drummer Jon Moss, guitarist Roy Hay and bassist Mikey Craig control absolutely the skintight arrangements that serve as the band's rock-solid foundation. On this tour, the backing has been expanded to include a keyboard player, three brassy horns and the two fine female vocalists who rough up the sound just enough to fulfil its live obligations without abandoning its pop functionalism. The result: Stax meets Abbey Road on the dance floor of the '80s.
At the throbbing Capital Centre, Culture Club's hit list ranged from its breakthrough song, "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" to the current "War Song." Among the older songs, "Karma Chameleon," "I'll Tumble 4 Ya," "Time Clock of the Heart" and "Tears Are Not Enough" received punchy and aggressive readings, but it was on a rare ballad, "Mistake No. 3," that George O'Dowd displayed a proclivity for Philly-style soul, wrapping his remarkably strong yet liquid voice around the song's bittersweet sentiments. Among the newer songs, "Dangerous Man" benefited from a live urgency, but "Hello Goodbye" proved that hard rock is not the band's me'tier.
Because he is so often caught up in Culture Club's infectious rhythmic whirl, it's easy to overlook the fact that O'Dowd is one of the most expressive new singers in rock. He invests his songs with a soulful quality that has nothing to do with mimicking soul's open emotions and everything to do with instinctive communication. And because the band's music is a convergence of subgenres ranging from bubblefunk and calypso to synth-disco and Motown, it very much needs O'Dowd's driving voice to stay on course. Except for too long a wait between the show's end and its encore, there were few bumps in the road at the Capital Centre last night.
One more thing: Using its own system and its own single screen, Culture Club showed how video can be imaginatively incorporated so that it complements a performance instead of overriding it. The sly mix of special effects and spectacular show made it easy to split one's attention between stage and screen without feeling cheated for lingering too long at one or the other.