With a June 1 date at Philadelphia’s Sugar House Casino, The B-52s – the toast of Athens, GA and avatars of the dance-punk movement – officially kicked off its 40th anniversary summer tour. That The Bs founding brain trust of Kate Pierson, Fred Schneider and Cindy Wilson was, and is, still intact, energetically performing their fun, frantic classics (to say nothing of maintaining the kitsch, goofball humor of their start), drove the Philly audience to zealously enthusiastic and participatory action.
Forty years after they dropped their first single – “Rock Lobster,” recorded for DB Records – Schneider’s fiercely playful call to action to go “Down, down… Let’s rock” still inspired a sold-out roomful of fans to snorkel and crumble in place.
“We all still laugh at the same things and have a sense of each other — and the absurd — that influences each other,” said Schneider just before the Sugar House show. “I would never dream of doing it this long if I didn’t still like them and hanging out with them,” said Pierson. “We still have fun together. And we know when and what it has been like to NOT have fun.” Though her reference focused on periods when tours lasted too long (for instance: the grueling live showcase behind their mega-successful 1989 “Cosmic Thing” album that led Wilson to temporarily depart The Bs in 1990), Pierson was surely thinking of co-founding composer Ricky Wilson who died in 1985 from an AIDS-related illness.
Along with maintaining a regular touring schedule as The B-52s, each singer has a solo career of which to speak. Schneider and the Superions released its latest electro-dance album, “The Vertical Mind,” in 2017. “I just have so many ideas and like working with other people,” he said. “It’s just fun, and without stress.” In 2017, Cindy Wilson released several EPs and her debut solo album, “Change,” inspired by French ye ye pop. Pierson, the most famously collaborative B with hit singles in union with R.E.M. (“Shiny Happy People”) and Iggy Pop (“Candy”), dropped her punky debut solo album in 2015, “Guitars and Microphones,” and is currently readying another album featuring so-compositions with Sia Fuller, Dallas Austin and British songwriter Christopher Braide. “I have one song ready to go called ‘The Great Wall’ for which I’m trying to find an immigration-related charity before releasing,” said Pierson of the modern folk tune.
As for The B-52s – whose music has been composed primarily with co-founder and non-touring member Keith Strickland since losing Ricky Wilson – the band hasn’t recorded an album since 2007’s “Funplex.” From all accounts, they probably never will. “You can’t support yourself trying to sell records with people downloading things for free, and it’s too expensive as each of us live in different parts of the country,” said Schneider. With that Pierson, explained the band’s longtime improvisational compositional process. “We pretty much have always just jammed until we came up with something through that process,” she said. “We would all have to be together in one room, and with Keith, to do that.” Pierson did not, however, rule out the possibility of recording a few singles, together, as The B-52s. “It wouldn’t be as long and involving as an entire album, and with the help of some new ProTools tutorials, Keith has been writing new music.”
Until then, The B-52s seem delighted touring and celebrating its fourth decade as pals and players.
Backed by a tight, focused and frenetic avant-dance quartet – highlighted by longtime drummer and David Bowie collaborator Sterling Campbell – at the Philly stop, the vocalists sounded as audacious , outrageous and frankly, fresh, as they did at their 1977 start in Athens for an impromptu Valentine’s Party.
Where the women vocalists were concerned, when each wasn’t busy with their singular solo parts – baritone Pierson’s glass-piercing highs on the syncopated “Mesopotamia,” Wilson’s newly developed, sexy lower register on the angular “Dance This Mess Around” – the twosome toyed with signature harmonies, still gorgeous and unique to behold. Pierson has discussed the B-52s vocal harmonics in the past as being folksy, Appalachian-inspired and spaced out in odd intervals, and back-to-back renditions of the jangly “Roam,” and the synth-poppy “Summer of Love” proved as much.
With his flinty, sing-speaking voice loud and upfront in the live mix, Schneider showed that he was still the camp-but-cutting king of ‘Sprechgesang,’ as he snarled and barked through a speed-racing “Cosmic Thing,” and the ditzy “Wig.” On the surf-spy-inspired “My Own Private Idaho,” the Bs sole male vocalist managed a most menacing presence. Schneider also happened to be the most animated of the lot, even though Pierson never stopped frugging. Along with making Kilauea volcano jokes during “Lava,” he played slide whistle during “Party Out of Bounds,” cowbell during a breezy take on “Love Shack” and helped propel “Rock Lobster” into a breakneck, rapid-firing dance call.
If this anxiously energetic and ecstatic night was any indication of what 40 years looks and sounds like on The B-52s, 50 should be a piece of cake.