Hall and Oates and Tears for Fears, currently on tour together through July, come from very different musical pedigrees. The American pair, Hall and Oates, emerged in the 1970s with strong connections to the forthright songwriting traditions of New York’s Brill Building and the renowned soul label Philadelphia International Records, while Tears for Fears came up a decade later with a cadre of English artists who packed their songs with Beatles-like harmonies, grandiose romantic sentiments, zippy synthesizers and up-to-date mechanized beats.
But double-billings like this one, which touched down in Queens’ Forest Hills Stadium on Friday night (June 16), offer an opportunity to identify the common ground between bands. And the trajectories of these two duos have overlapped since the 1980s, when both outfits enjoyed polished, arena-sized pop hits. Both acts have also recorded rarely in recent years, trading in the studio, where they constructed immaculate compositions, for the predictable rigors and rewards of the road. (In theory, a new Tears for Fears album, their first since 2004, is on the way.) And neither duo cares for onstage theatrics: they play faithful versions of the sturdy tunes they penned decades ago, and fans respond as they have been responding since those tunes came out — by singing along.
Live performance focuses and streamlines Tears for Fears. At Forest Hills, the duo was accompanied by a drummer, keyboard player, backup singer, and second guitarist; together, the ensemble stripped away some of the bells and whistles that can hamper the trio of albums — The Hurting, Songs From the Big Chair, and best of all, The Seeds of Love — which turned Tears for Fears into stars.
The group benefited especially from the sterling playing of their live drummer, who was a forceful presence behind Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith. The flat thwack of percussion on 1980s recordings doesn’t always age gracefully, and Tears for Fears’ drummer injected snappy flair into familiar songs. The band’s lone backup singer — according to Smith, she is six-months pregnant — did impressive work during the blaring harmonies, knitting together Orzabal and Smith’s voices with her own gusting, gummy lines.
Tears for Fears played the classics — plus a stately cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” — and showed their range: from morose, stomping rock to delicate Fab Four inflections, from glossy, svelte post-punk to slick pop-soul. Smith blew kisses to the crowd, and Orzabal, apparently a tennis fan, praised the history of the venue, earning cheers from the crowd as he commended athletes like Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe. The band finished with an emphatic one-two punch, following “Head Over Heels” with “Shout,” which seems to command the same scream-along power as it did when it hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 in 1985.
Hall and Oates’ set was both more narrowly focused than Tears for Fears’ and more pristine. There are no hints of doom and gloom in this duo’s music; even when suspended in various states of romantic torture, the group sounds rapturous. After dispensing with two of their crunchiest rock songs from the 1980s, “Family Man” and “Out of Touch,” early in the night, Hall and Oates staked claim to a gorgeous corner of blue-eyed soul for the rest of the evening.
Hall’s voice has corroded over the years, and he uses this to his advantage, adding a rough-edged authority to his weepy hooks and aggrieved lover pleas. He has also settled onto a great routine with his band where the two appear to be perpetually at war: Hall sings a scraping verse from the perspective of someone hurt or lonely or pissed off, and the band responds with a soothing high harmony during the chorus. Nearly every member of the eight-piece group appears to sing, and their dazzling vocal arrangements complimented Hall’s lashing lead parts in a rolling series of call-and-response skirmishes. During “Say It Isn’t So,” “One on One,” and “She’s Gone,” this was an overwhelmingly effective trick.
Hall and Oates’ set list didn’t vary much from their performance last winter at Madison Square Garden; don’t show up hoping for the deep cuts. But they succeeded in illustrating connections between their music and some strands of contemporary pop. A spare arrangement of “Sara Smile” — Hall behind a piano, Oates picking out single notes on guitar, a lagging beat from one drummer and a spurt of hand percussion from another — pointed directly to the neo-soul that became popular in the late 1990s. Sometimes Hall and Oates nodded to unexpected predecessors as well: during “Is It a Star,” a rare non-single that made it into the set list, the duo sounded more than a little like the Doors.
The band ended almost every song with an over-long outro — a guitar solo, a saxophone solo, sometimes both — but most of these songs remain untouchable. And their reactivity is as strong as ever: all night, all the men within earshot attempted to match Hall’s falsetto with their own.