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Boy George on new Culture Club album, Wolf Trap concert July 18 and his affinity for astrology

Pop legend prepping new band record for fall release

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Boy George plays Wolf Trap July 18. (Photo courtesy of Wolf Trap)

Boy George has never been one to fade away.

Since he first appeared on the music scene as the gender-bending, eccentric Culture Club frontman in 1981, George has commanded attention from his fan base, his peers, like his good friend Cyndi Lauper, and the media.

Now, Culture Club is releasing “Tribes,” their first album in nearly 20 years, this fall. According to George, the long-awaited release is “the best record we’ve ever made.” While fans wait a couple more months for new tunes, they can get their Culture Club fix during the band’s the “Life Tour” stop at Wolf Trap which includes the B-52s and the Thompson Twins’ Tom Bailey (show details are here). 

George took a break from recording and touring to chat with the Blade about his passion for astrology, the dangers of social media and just why it took Culture Club almost two decades to release a new album.

WASHINGTON BLADE: Culture Club is going to be releasing new music for the first time in nearly 20 years. Was there pressure to release new music?
BOY GEORGE: A lot of it has just been that we weren’t working together. The fact that there was a 20 year gap was just accidental. We’re a funny band because we never really split up. We never hated each other at all. We just drifted apart. I was doing my own thing and they were doing whatever they were doing having kids, getting arrested. It’s just one of those things. It’s so weird the way things pan out. This particular record has been probably about five or six years in preparation and then some more problems came up. Not really insurmountable problems, really, just where the band was going. I was looking for a new manager. We disagreed on who was going to be the manager. Jon [Moss], Roy [Hay] and Mikey [Craig] ended up going off with someone else and I found myself a great manager and that’s really what made it work. If you’d had said to me 20 years ago “There’s going to be a point in history where you’ll have two managers” I would have just laughed at you. But, actually, it really works. It’s just a funny thing because all that stuff gets in the way of the most important thing and that is the creativity. It’s really nice that we’re now mixing the record. Every day we’re getting mixes in and I think it’s the best record we’ve ever made.

BLADE: What aspects of recording with Culture Club do you prefer over recording independently?
BOY GEORGE: It’s a very different process. You have to be much more tolerant. I think recording is always free flowing even when you make your own record. You’re still working with people that you respect and love. You let people do their thing. I’m sure there are other musicians who are very controlling and they know what they want. But whenever I go into the studio I know what the song is but I never really know completely where I want it to go. I let a lot of it happen in the moment. I think that’s what makes recording exciting. I would say the same process applies to Culture Club. This time we worked with two young producers and they definitely brought something unique to what we were doing. I really was excited by what they contributed. I would say they were probably more controlling than we were. Bands are crazy and we have no sense of time. Rock and roll people don’t do time. I’ve never worn a watch in my life. I’ve been given some really expensive watches for free but I’ve never really worn one. I think the producer’s job is to come and just control the whole thing and say “OK, we’re going to go this way.” In my experience, recording sessions have always been very respectful, free flowing. It’s just a very open environment. In fact, probably the most fun thing I do is recording. I think that I would probably spend my life in the studio but that wouldn’t be particularly practical.

BLADE: I don’t know if you’re into astrology at all but you’re a Gemini and your persona appears to have a duality to it. Have you found that to be a blessing or a curse?
BOY GEORGE: First of all, I’m one of those people always talking about star signs. People are like “Shut up!” I’ve always got a lot to say about people’s star signs and how people are so typical of their star signs. I think that’s very true. I think that I’m also very typical of my star sign in the sense that I’m always of two minds about everything. I can come off stage and I could have had a really great show but I’ll also be moany about it. It’s that thing of like the twins and split personality that’s very much a part of who I am. Sometimes people perceive it wrongly. We [Geminis] are called two-faced but we are able to see both sides of every situation. It has nothing to do with being two-faced. We’re very sure about what we feel. But we’re also open to having our minds changed and I think that’s where people get confused about Gemini. So I think that I’m a typical Gemini.

BLADE: Concert culture is very different from when you first started out. Now, people are on their phones recording or taking photos when an act is on stage. How do you feel about that?
BOY GEORGE: I think it’s fascinating. The last couple shows we’ve done I pointed out people in the front row without phones. I actually made a big thing and said, “Look there are people in the front row without phones. Impossible.” I’m one of those people that believe that people having that attitude all the time is pretty unhealthy. So, there are lots of times when I don’t take my phone with me to dinner. I try not to sit on it all the time. I try to go outside into nature, take a walk. There is a sense that people are having a third party experience with everything that they do and it’s a little bit sad. It’s harder to dance when you’ve got an iPhone in your hand. It’s harder to really let go. I think people are just obsessed with these things. But you’ve also got to let people have the show they want to have. You have to let people have fun on their own terms. So, I’m not one of these people who gets annoyed. I’ve absolutely done it. I’ve stopped shows before, a long, long time ago. And then I turned a corner and was like “You can’t control this. This is not important. This is just going to get in the way.” So I just stopped doing it. It worries me sometimes when people around me just all they do is look at their phones. You know, followers and likes are not for money. It doesn’t mean anything. I come from a time when artists made a cultural impact through the things they said and did. That interests me far more than how many people have liked my photo. But I also know it’s a part of life and a modern phenomenon. I love the aspect that I can say “Happy birthday” to someone in Vietnam or Australia and I can talk to fans in a direct way. It’s all about getting it into perspective, I think.

Culture Club, gay news, Washington Blade

Culture Club is (from left) Mikey Craig, Boy George, Jon Moss and Roy Hay. (Photo by Dean Stockings)

BLADE: You’re such a vet in this industry but what’s the most recent industry lesson you’ve learned?
BOY GEORGE: Nobody knows what they’re doing. That’s what I’ve learned. My life policy is basically we’re all clinging to a rock but some of us have a better grip than others. The more I’m in this business the more I’ve realized that with music, we are one of the most creative industries in the world, and yet some of the people running it are deeply uncreative. And I think that’s why live music has become so important for artists like me because it’s the one place where you’re completely in charge. You’re completely authentic even though I hate that word. It’s such a buzz word. But you are in charge. This is me, this is my music. Nobody’s in the way. I love the spontaneity of live shows because it’s really the last place where nobody can pretend to be you. Nobody really gets in your way. I love that and that’s why I think live shows are the best. It’s so great to be in a situation where you can just be yourself.

Culture Club, Boy George, Wolf Trap, gay news, Washington Blade

Photo of Boy George performing at Wolf Trap with Culture Club on August 10, 2015. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

 

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Music & Concerts

Forget streaming, the holiday classics return to area stages

Bring your proof of vaccination and check out a local production this season

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A scene from a previous Gay Men's Chorus of Washington Holiday Show. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

A year ago, the holiday season was streamed. But now, thanks to various protocols including masks and proof of vaccination, DMV theatergoers can come together and experience – live and in-person — both beloved classics and some promising new works. Here’s a smattering of what’s out there.

At Olney Theatre, Paul Morello is thrilled to bring back “A Christmas Carol 2021” (through Dec. 26), his solo adaptation of Dickens’ ghost story. Concerning returning to a live audience, Morello says, “While this is technically a one-person show, it’s really about the connection and collaboration with an audience, being in the same room, breathing in unison. I can’t do this without an audience and for a story that thrives on redemption, mortality, isolation, the need for community and connection, and the things that matter most, the timing couldn’t be better.”

Olney also presents “Disney’s Beauty and the Beast” through Jan. 2. This musical “tale as old as time” stars out actor Jade Jones as Belle and Evan Ruggiero plays the Beast. olneytheatre.org

For the holidays, Synetic Theater at Crystal City is reworking “Cinderella” (Nov. 27-Dec. 26). Led by an all-female team of creators, this festive take on the classic fairytale is inspired by Afro-Latino music and dance. Directed and adapted by Maria Simpkins who also plays the title role. synetictheater.org

Last year, because of COVID-19, Ford’s Theatre presented “A Christmas Carol” as a radio broadcast, but now the fully produced play returns to the venue’s historic stage through Dec. 27. A popular Washington tradition for more than 30 years, the thoroughly enjoyable and topnotch take on the Dickens’ classic features Craig Wallace reprising the part of Scrooge, the miser who after a night of ghostly visits, rediscovers Christmas joy. fords.org

Another D.C. tradition guaranteed to put audiences in a holiday mood is the Washington Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” playing at the Warner Theatre through Dec. 26. Set to Tchaikovsky’s enchanted score, this charming and superbly executed offering takes place in Georgetown circa 1882 and features a retinue of historic figures along with children, rats, fairies and a mysterious godfather. Choreography is by Septime Webre. washingtonballet.org

The Folger Consort, the superb early music ensemble in residence at the Folger, will be performing seven concerts of “A Medieval Christmas” (Dec. 10-18) at St. Mark’s Church on Capitol Hill. A streaming version of the concert will also be available to view on-demand. folger.edu

At Lincoln Theatre, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, D.C. presents “The Holiday Show” (Dec. 4, 11, and 12) replete with tap-dancing elves, a dancing Christmas tree, snow, and a lot more. The fun and festive program’s song list includes “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”, “The 12 Rockin’ Days of Christmas,” and “Boogie Woogie Frosty.” Featured performances range from the full Chorus, soloists, all GMCW ensembles, and the GenOUT Youth Chorus. gmcw.org

Arena Stage is marking the season with August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” (through Dec. 26), a drama about a small group of friends who gather following the untimely death of their friend, a blues guitarist on the edge of stardom. Directed by Tazewell Thompson, the production features an exciting cast that includes local actors Dane Figueroa Edidi and Roz White. arenastage.org

Creative Cauldron is serving up some holiday magic with “The Christmas Angel” (Dec. 9-19). Based on a little-known 1910 novel by Abbey Farwell Brown, it’s the story of a lonely and bitter spinster who returns to happiness through a box of old toys. The commissioned new holiday musical is a collaboration of longtime musical collaborators and married couple Matt Conner and Stephen Gregory Smith (lyrics and book). creativecauldron.org

In keeping with the Yuletide spirit, the National Theatre presents two feel-good national tour musicals. First, it’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” (through Dec. 5), a musical take on Dr. Seuss’ classic holiday tale featuring the hit songs “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Welcome Christmas.”

Next up is “Tootsie” (Dec. 7-12), the hit musical based on the 1982 gender-bending film starring Dustin Hoffman as an out-of-work actor who disguises himself as a woman to land a role on a popular soap opera. The show boasts a Tony-winning book by Robert Horn and a score by Tony winner David Yazbek (The Band’s Visit). thenationaldc.com

Keegan Theatre presents its annual holiday offering, “An Irish Carol” (Dec. 10-31). Set in a modern Dublin pub, the funny yet poignant original work (a nod to Dickens) tracks the changes in the life of a rich but miserable publican over the course of one Christmas Eve. keegantheatre.org

At Theater J, it’s the Kinsey Sicks’ “Oy Vey in a Manger” (Dec. 17-25). Blending drag, four-part harmony, and political humor, the “dragapella beautyshop quartet” brings its own hilariously irreverent view on the holidays. theaterj.org

And through Jan. 2, Signature Theatre continues to brighten the season with its production of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” directed by the company’s out artistic director Matthew Gardiner and featuring out actor David Merino as Angel, a preternaturally energetic drag queen and percussionist. sigtheare.org

The Music Center at Strathmore, also in Bethesda, is presenting a wide range of musical holiday offerings including “Manheim Steamroller Christmas” (Dec. 3 and 4), a multimedia holiday tradition; Sarah Brightman in “A Christmas Symphony” (Dec. 6 and 7); “A Celtic Christmas with Séan Heely Celtic Band” (Dec. 11); Washington Bach Consort’s “Bach’s Epic Christmas Oratorio” (Dec. 11); the beloved “The Washington Chorus: A Candlelight Christmas” (Dec. 16 and 17); and last but not least “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” (Dec. 20), Tchaikovsky’s classic reimagined with MC Kurtis Blow (“White Lines”). strathmore.org

And finally, something strictly for the kids: Imagination Stage presents “Corduroy” (Dec. 11-Jan. 24). Based on the beloved children’s books by Don Freeman, it’s the heartwarming story of a girl and her perfectly imperfect Teddy Bear. Best for ages 3-9. imaginationstage.org

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Music & Concerts

BETTY returns to DC

Queer band to perform at City Winery Dec. 5

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BETTY (Photo by Gene Reed, 2021)

Pop-rock band BETTY is returning to their District homeland for a holiday show at City Winery on Dec. 5.  

Fronted by Alyson Palmer and sisters Elizabeth and Amy Ziff, the band who are “rule breakers” and “equality rockers” have been touring, writing, and advocating for social change through their music since 1986. The band has been featured in shows like “The L Word” and “Encyclopedia,” and created their own off-Broadway show “BETTY RULES.”

The D.C. show will kick off a tour that will bring the band to New York City, Cincinnati, and New Hope, Pa. Elizabeth, who identifies as lesbian, said it’s been “incredible” to be in rehearsals for shows again after the pandemic put a hold on live music.  

“We’ve been together for so long. We are a family and we hang out and we’re friends and we play music together,” she said. “It’s our life.”

Amy, who is queer, said she’s excited to perform in the District where the band originally formed. 

“It’s so emotional because it’s where we grew up,” she said. “Not just musically, but it’s where we came out.”

Proof of vaccination is required at all shows. To purchase tickets, visit citywinery.com.

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Music & Concerts

We waited eons for this? New Diana album is colossal disappointment

Saccharine sentiments sink largely self-penned effort from diva supreme

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Diana Ross’s new project ‘Thank You,’ while hopeful and optimistic, is too musically weak to catch fire after the one-two punch of its opening cuts. (Image courtesy Decca)

Diana Ross’s solo albums are almost always inconsistent.

This isn’t unusual among R&B/pop divas; start wading past the hits and the same could be said for the album tracks of Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick, et. al.

The few times she’s made a start-to-finish solid effort, like 1991’s “The Force Behind the Power,” 1995’s “Take Me Higher” or even 1985’s “Eaten Alive,” which works even with its campy title cut, they’ve never been huge sellers or featured any of her trademark hits.

However — and it pains me to say this — you have to go all the way back to 1983’s “Ross” to find an album as bad as her new release “Thank You” (★½ out of four), her first album in 15 years and her first of new material in 22 years. Pre-COVID, she was highly active with touring (and played the D.C. region many times), but her studio work had ground to a total halt.

A few things trickled out from the vault, like 2006’s delightful jazz album “Blue” (recorded in the early ’70s), but there was nothing new. And while it was always great to see her on stage — she looks fabulous at 77 (although you’d never know it from the vintage photo used on the “Thank You” cover) — her show varied little from year to year and her vocals were occasionally pitchy.

So while it’s great to finally have something new from the Motown legend — a studio workhorse all through the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s — this extremely uneven new album is a musical Hallmark turd that never met a feel-good lyrical cliche too saccharine or an easy listening musical bed too insipid.

It’s hard to place too much of the blame on Troy Miller (a veteran of Amy Winehouse’s band), who produced the bulk of the tracks here, as Ross’s fingerprints are all over it — she’s billed as executive producer and, in a career first, she co-wrote nine of the 13 cuts. Though she took a few songwriting credits here and there over the years (she co-wrote four songs on her 1982 album “Silk Electric”), on most of her albums, her songwriting contributions are zero. And although two of those — the bouncy title cut and second single “If the World Just Danced” — are unequivocally the project’s best tracks, Joni Mitchell she is not.

Here’s the good news — she sounds amazing. There’s a lustrous quality to her vocal work here, her range is truly impressive and the pitch never wavers. Some scoff, but I have always felt Ross is a great pop singer with considerable range and impressive interpretive abilities in a wide gulf of genres. She was never a Whitney or Celine, but she could coo (“Baby Love”), yearn (“Cryin’ My Heart Out for You”), burn (“Muscles”) and growl (“Swept Away”) as well as anyone. This album’s “Time to Call,” though weak, gives her a chance to unfurl several melismas in her highest register and she kills it.

Stylistically, while varied, the album as a whole is numbingly mellow. Three cuts (the solid “If the World Just Danced,” retro shuffle “I Still Believe” and horn-laden abomination “Tomorrow”) are dance tracks and almost all the rest could legitimately be dubbed easy listening. There’s cascading string work, decent (if hardly impressive) production and stylistic variation, but the flame dies out after the first two songs and, with such banal lyrics and painfully unimaginative melodies, never comes close to reigniting despite Ross’s conviction. It’s like seeing a truly good actress in a turkey of a play knowing she co-wrote it. You’re rooting for her, but you’ve spent most of the outing wincing.

One might argue saccharine and Ross have gone hand in hand back to the days of “Reach Out and Touch” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — true — but it’s taken to a new low here. Of course, nobody expected Deepak Chopra-caliber insight, but with clunkers like “what is isn’t/what isn’t is” (on the Ross co-penned “All is Well”), “I’ll be the pillow where your head will lay,” (on daughter Rhonda’s “Count on Me”) or “the first time I saw your face …” (on mother’s ode “Beautiful Love”) — ripping off a lyric that blatantly should be illegal — this album’s scaffolding is so weak, one positively groans at the amateurishness of the songcraft. This is the chorus of “Count on Me”: “count on me/count on me/count on me/count on me.”

Siedah Garrett, a respected songwriter who might have momentarily elevated the proceedings, delivers one of the album’s worst cuts with the nauseatingly treacly “The Answer’s Always Love.”
I could go on, but you get the idea.

One might also argue, hey, couldn’t we use a little positivity today? Cut Miss Ross some slack and just be glad she’s back. True perhaps, but with material this weak and the thought of what this album could have been in more daring, imaginative hands, it’s downright frustrating.

With little chance of making any kind of dent on U.S. (or U.K. for that matter) pop radio and in her late 70s, I’d hoped Miss Ross, with no fucks left to give, might have done something brash and daring, but this is called playing it safe folks and sadly it’s a yawnfest.

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