OMD – Live Review – Leeds First Direct Arena
By David Schuster, November 2021
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark are master entertainers. This crucial point might surprise you if you’ve never seen them live. There’s instant camaraderie; Andy McCluskey wooing the crowd from the moment they take to the stage. “I think we’ve got a party crowd in tonight!”, he declares surveying the 4,000 strong audience filling the Leeds First Direct Arena. “Don’t worry that we’ve started slowly, I hope you’ve brought your dancing shoes.”
Whilst it’s true that the opening tracks are austere, they are a striking reminder that OMD have managed to be both masters of the pop single and yet musically innovative. Appropriately enough for the fortieth anniversary of Architecture & Morality, the band’s third album, the set opens with the instrumental of the same name. Harsh metallic screeches and deep drones interspersed with industrial hissing is classic steampunk, composed decades before that genre was invented. It’s a bold move, the band aren’t even visible, lost in the darkness of a stage backed by three vast digital displays showing bleak, brutalist buildings. You might be dreading humorless machine musicians in the Kraftwerk mould, and fearing the worst by this point, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Instead, this is a clever means of steadily increasing the pace of the show, starting slowly and building to a fun, frenetic finale. The band appear to ‘Sealand’ in front of crashing wave imagery, McCluskey silhouetted against Stewart Kershaw’s drum kit, with co-founder Paul Humphreys and Martin Cooper, on keyboard risers to the right and left. Things warm up nicely through ‘The New Stone Age’, ‘Georgia’ and ‘She’s Leaving’, with the multi-talented musician filling the huge arena stage in his various roles as singer, guitarist, bassist and somewhat bizarre dancer. I’d like to bet Samuel T. Herring of Future Islands based his style on the Merseyside performer’s distinctive windmilling arm movements. “Don’t worry”, he says, pausing to wipe his brow, “I do this for a living. It’s not pretty, but it keeps me fit!”
By now, the crowd are fully enthralled. Those standing, who had been swaying gently from side to side through ‘She’s Leaving’ explode into action as the group run through the trio of hit singles from Architecture & Morality; ‘Souvenir’, ‘Joan of Arc’ and the beautifully haunting ‘Maid of Orleans’. Back in the seated areas the aisles are filled with people dancing. The auditorium’s acoustics and sound are top notch, delivering floor vibrating bass in ‘Seven Seas’, the high bagpipe skirl of ‘Maid of Orleans’ and everything in between clearly, despite the mass of people.
The performance remains interesting through the talent and versatility of the band. For ‘Souvenir’ the front man swaps places with Humphreys to take the microphone, amid amiable banter about whose role is easiest. Cooper too leaves the keyboards on a couple of occasions to play beautiful, haunting saxophone solos. There’s also striking imagery in ‘Messages’, where the whole band come forward, even Stewart Kershaw emerging from behind the drum riser with a guitar, each spot lit individually. It’s a powerful moment.
“The Arena erupts”
One advantage of having simple beat patterns is that they are easy to keep time with, something the singer takes full advantage of, encouraging the crowd to clap along. We’re treated to ‘Tesla Girls’, ‘Locomotion’ and ‘Pandora’s box’, along with many others. Our hands are sore, but we don’t care. Admirably, they keep the songs to their original lengths and so rattle through a total of eighteen numbers before finishing the main set with ‘Enola Gay’. OMD’s enduringly popular anti-war song still gets regular radio play, and rightly so, the bright keyboard riff and syn-drum sound belying its important message. As the lights go out, the arena erupts into a storm of clapping, cheering and stamping.
It’s not long before the band are back, triumphant. They treat us to a three-song encore; ‘If You Leave’, ‘The Romance of the Telescope’ and the timeless pop gem that is ‘Electricity’, but not before McCluskey makes a tongue in cheek assessment of the audience. “Health and Safety check”, he announces. “Are you okay to keep dancing?” We are. The whole arena is on their feet, clapping cheering and bopping along to their electronic magic. It’s fantastic that, more than forty years on, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark can be so vibrant, engaging and fun. See them perform live if you can.
Top image: Richard Purvis