Old goths never die -- they just get thinner. Rail-like Peter Murphy, now in his early forties, cuts as much of a spectral figure as he did in his Bauhaus days, but now, thankfully, he has more of a sense of humor about it. Introducing his backing band at Tuesday's kick-off date for his U.S. tour at the Sun Theatre in Anaheim, Calif., he rattled off the names of his accompanying musicians before pausing to lift his shirt up and declare with a grin, "And this is my tummy!"
Bouncing pogo-style through some of the songs in his career-summing set, Murphy seemed determined not to cling too tightly to the past. Though touring to support his newly released decade-spanning greatest hits collection Wild Birds: 1985-1995, the gaunt god of ghoul neglected much of his early work, with nary a Bauhaus reference to be found. Only opener and intensified Pere Ubu cover "Final Solution," his first solo single, represented his early solo years or first two albums. Instead, he focused on 1990's hit-yielding Deep (whose "Cuts You Up" served as the final encore) and his last album, 1995's Cascade, and even then Murphy didn't offer nostalgic renditions.
Augmented by drummer Kevin Haskins (also a Bauhaus alum), bassist Eric Avery (ex-Jane's Addiction), guitarist Peter DiStefano (ex-Porno for Pyros) and keyboardist Doug DeAngelis, Murphy morphed from atmospheric mood-setter to rock god. "Cascade," one of his quieter albums, yielded some surprisingly harder-edged tunes, once pumped up properly. With ominous overtones, material from "Cascade" became urgent and propulsive, brooding and yearning. The elongated "Subway," which turns on a phrase from a Petula Clark song, restructured itself around squawking washes of keyboards and Avery's strong, clean bass lines. Even with the gloomier opening added to "The Sweetest Drop" (from 1992's Holy Smoke) only served to augment the more driving moments by giving them more dramatic contrast. Much of Murphy's Deep material was more drastically rearranged, as if he were unsatisfied with that particular period. "Deep Ocean Vast Sea" brought up the guitar in the mix and left its once-prominent keyboards to act only as shading. "Crystal Wrists" added ambient space to break up its original pace. And the formerly crisp "Roll Call" became an almost funky loose jam.
Murphy seemed happier with the changes, looser even. He toys with the goth scene's bleak image of him, tweaking it a little and adding some color. Though most goths are lapsed Catholics (or are at least enraptured with Catholic symbolism), Murphy infuses his songs with Sufi and Islamic metaphors. One encore, "Big Love of a Tiny Fool," which he played solo on an acoustic guitar, springs from an obscure Turkish tune. And "Surrendered," another encore, had a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan quality to its wails, some of which were augmented by a backing track that included vocals from Turkish singer Shengul. For his own deep and haunting howls, Murphy clasped his ears to his head, as if to emit the sounds were more painful than the emotions described. Though dramatic and theatrical, he would also drape himself around DiStefano, almost for balance, or stand back to back with the forward-facing Avery, in playful gestures that suggested camaraderie. Yet Murphy still had a decided air about him, as if every sigh, breath, pose and note was orchestrated. Every lyric was over-enunciated, crystal clear even when the sound mix turned muddy (the same could not be said for his rumbling speaking voice, which was barely discernable).
Some of his moves, like the music, were stark -- he'd drink from a water bottle onstage as if it were something magical, staring intently at the ceiling for several moments, holding still, after he'd finished, as if the very water deserved contemplation. Then, abruptly but with a certain amount of somber grace, he'd slither across the stage or bend over and hang down to his toes, as if he weren't really stretching but beginning some sort of abstract dance. Yet he couldn't plan everything -- though only the first date of this tour, he couldn't hit all the high notes, as he was already beginning to lose his voice. That's what backup singers are for, Pete.