SAN FRANCISCO — Pop and rock stalwarts The Psychedelic Furs and James brought their co-headlining tour to the Stern Grove Festival Sunday, playing to a standing-room-only crowd on a day that started off chilly before the sun finally broke through the fog and turned the day into a scorcher—aided by the blistering performances of both bands, which came of age in the ’80s and ’90s.
James took to the stage first, and frontman Tim Booth wasted no time addressing the three mass shootings that have occurred in the U.S. over the past week, the current political climate in the country and changing the status quo. The band opened with “Walk Like You,” which he said was advice for children to not follow in the footsteps of their parents.
“We will not walk like you/ Talk like you … Fight like you/ Screwed like you/ Break like you,” he sang over the melodic piano-led tune while writhing as if possessed. The song came from the 2014’s La Petite Mort: one of several albums the band sampled over the course of its hourlong set. Booth and Co. then transitioned to “Hank,” the warlike protest song from James’ 2018 album, Living in Extraordinary Times. Booth introduced it as “an angry song” in light of the week terrorist attacks in Ohio and Texas, and “the racist Tweets going around,” but that was an understatement.
“This crackhead’s tiny fingers/ Accusing you of what he’ll do/ White fascists in the White House/ More beetroot in your Russian stew,” he seethed while he and other members of the band took turns banging away at a tom drum set at the front of the stage. Then during the song’s signature line, where Booth names off several mass-shootings, he added one of the most recent ones: “Democracy sells easy/ NRA high fives/ El Paso, Sandy Hook, Columbine.” He sang in falsetto, with pain in his voice as majestic synths rose up behind him.
The sextet, performing at times with as many as seven or eight musicians on Sunday, including a cellist, then switched gears to the anxiety-filled “What’s It All About,” another 2018 cut, and “Come Home,” a fan favorite from 1991’s self-titled album, with guitars so crunchy it could have only remained genuine if it really came from that decade. Booth jumped off the stage and then hopped from picnic table to picnic table before singing in a sea of fans who had encircled him. That song rolled right into James’ biggest hit, “Laid,” off 1993’s album of the same name. The energetic performance got most people up from their seats as Booth remained in the crowd. Afterward, he said it was just the second time on the band’s current tour that the song has made an appearance.
The melancholic “P.S.,” also from Laid, and two 2018 tracks followed: foul-mouthed love song “Leviathan” andGetting Away With It (All Messed Up),” off 2001’s Pleased to Meet You; and “Sound,” from 1992’s Seven. Booth again made his way through fans, this time even climbing into the wooded general admission hill while the rest of the band went into an extended jam.
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While James’ set leaned on the band’s ’90s influences, The Psychedelic Furs pushed an additional decade to the ’80s. The English post-punk band, which became tied to the decade after its song “Pretty in Pink” was used by John Hughes in the film of the same name, hasn’t released an album of all-original songs since 1991, which made the set less varied—but no less effective.
Clad in a knee-length black trench coat over a black polkadot shirt, lead vocalist Richard Butler and his bandmates kicked things off on style with iconic cut “Love My Way,” from 1980’s All of This and Nothing; and the hard-charging “Mr. Jones” from 1981’s Talk Talk Talk.
Butler’s deep-toned voice and snarling delivery, especially on this track, was not unlike Billy Idol or Iggy Pop.
Mellower song, “The Ghost in You,” from 1984’s “Mirror Moves,” briefly lowered the show’s collective blood pressure until The Psychedelic Furs kicked into the upbeat triptych of “So Run Down,” “Heaven” and new cut “The Boy That Invented Rock and Roll,” a saxophone-framed tune rumored to be for an album the band wants to release in 2020.
Judging by the fan reaction, “Pretty in Pink,” was the song fans were most looking forward to, as phone-bearing arms reached toward the sky. Shimmering “President Gas” and brassy ballad “Sleep Comes Down,” both from Forever Now, nostalgia-dipped synth number “Heartbreak Beat” and the romping “India” concluded the abridged performance, which didn’t include an encore probably because the show was already pushing to 5 p.m.