By John Curley
The Vapors’ first New York City shows since 1981 were very well received. The concerts, which took place at Mercury Lounge in Manhattan on Friday, October 19, Saturday, October 20, and Sunday, October 21, were made possible due to a crowdfunding effort. The band hopes to do a more extensive North American tour in the near future. The closing show on October 21st was a memorable, magnificent, and quite fun night.
Opening the proceedings at the October 21st show were the fantastic band The Split Squad. The band is comprised of superb veteran musicians. Guitarists Eddie Munoz and Keith Streng are with The Plimsouls and The Fleshtones, respectively. Drummer Clem Burke pounds the skins for Blondie. Bassist/vocalist Michael Giblin is with Parallax Project. And keyboardist Josh Kantor is a member of Big Jim’s Ego and The Baseball Project. He is also the Boston Red Sox’ organist at Fenway Park and a music librarian at Harvard University. Their 45-minute set knocked out the sold-out crowd, and the audience roared with appreciation throughout the band’s set. They are a tight and ferocious outfit, and they play off of each other very well. Fans near the stage had to keep their eyes open at all times since they never knew when Streng would decide to jump off of the stage and onto the floor to play his incendiary guitar leads while flailing around.
The Split Squad opened their set with a rocking version of “Superman Says,” which was written with R.E.M. associate Scott McCaughey and features on the band’s first album Now Hear This…. That was followed by “Hey DJ,” a criticism of what radio has become and a song that will appear on the next album. An excellent cover of The Small Faces’ “Sorry She’s Mine,” which The Split Squad recorded for Now Hear This…, showed just how tight the band is and how well they work together as a unit. The new song “Showstopper” and the soulful “I Can’t Remember” from Now Hear This… were good examples of the band’s versatility, as they can shift seamlessly from rock to soul and back again. Great takes on “Feel The Same About You” and “Hey Hey Baby,” both from Now Hear This…, preceded a terrific cover of Jimmy Reed’s “Help Yourself.” The new song “Stop Me,” which Little Steven dubbed “The Coolest Song in the World” on his radio show, was given a rip-roaring work through before The Split Squad closed their set with the title track of Now Hear This… that included bits of Mott The Hoople’s “Rock & Roll Queen” and The Who’s “Sparks” (the amped-up Live At Leeds version, a truly sensational bit of the show that had Burke getting his full Keith Moon on). And the audience gave the band a big cheer as they left the stage. Giblin said that the show was their last of 2018. But keep an eye of the Tour section of their Web site at http://www.thesplitsquad.com for future live dates. They are a must see in concert.
The Vapors, most famous for their 1980 single “Turning Japanese,” were discovered by The Jam’s bassist Bruce Foxton. Foxton went on to co-manage the band with John Weller, Paul Weller’s father and manager of The Jam. The Vapors’ two albums—1980’s New Clear Days and 1981’s Magnets—were filled with the band’s trademark sharp and spiky power pop. The band split up in 1981 and reconvened in 2016. Participating in the reunion are singer-songwriter-guitarist Dave Fenton, bassist Steve Smith, guitarist Ed Bazalgette, and new drummer Michael Bowes. Original drummer Howard Smith declined to participate in the reunion. Bazalgette was unavailable for the New York City shows due to other commitments, so the lead-guitar role at the Mercury Lounge trio of concerts was filled by Dave Fenton’s son, Dan Fenton.
The Vapors, performing in front of a screen upon which the band’s logo was projected, kicked off their highly anticipated set with a rousing, bass-heavy version of “Bunkers.” Dan Fenton made his presence known immediately, playing great lead guitar on the song. They followed that with “Live At The Marquee,” which featured some nice guitar interplay between the Fentons. A fantastic version of “Somehow” was next, and the enthusiastic, sold-out crowd sang along at the top of their voices. Before performing “Trains, Dave Fenton told the crowd that it was about waiting for someone to arrive on a train in the days before mobile phones and hoping that they would be there. A razor-sharp power-pop number, it received a rousing cheer from the crowd. An excellent version of the heavy “Sunstroke” followed, much to the delight of the packed house.
The Vapors showed that the number of concerts that they have played since the band’s reformation have turned them into a formidable outfit with a tight and terrific performance of “Silver Machines.” The audience really enjoyed “King L,” The Vapors’ tribute to Leonard Cohen. The crowd sang along with the nice, tight version of “One Of My Dreams” and gave it a big hand at the end. “Magnets” started out softly and got considerably heavier about a minute into the song. It featured some impressive work by Dan Fenton on guitar. Dave Fenton told the crowd that “Spring Collection” was the first track on their debut album. The crowd sang along to it, and gave it a big round of applause at the end.
Dave Fenton introduced the song “Jimmie Jones” by saying it was about a mass murderer. The bouncy power pop of the song stands in stark contrast to the subject matter, the evil of the 1970s cult leader Jim Jones. “Waiting For The Weekend” was up next, a great power-pop gem. The crowd was very enthusiastic throughout the song’s performance. The take on “Letter From Hiro” was quite intense and was a great band effort, offering spotlight moments to Smith, Bowes, and the Fentons. It was really fantastic, one of the many highlights of the show.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the amazing performance of “Turning Japanese” that came next was the most anticipated moment of the show. The band delivered. It featured a great vocal by Dave Fenton and impressive guitar work from Dan Fenton. The crowd sang along with a full-throated roar. For those of us in the crowd that loved the song when it was released in 1980 but had never seen it performed live before, it was a nice moment.
The performance of The Vapors’ first single, the outstanding, bass-heavy “Prisoners,” featured fine guitar work by the Fentons. The main set closed with “News At Ten,” which Dave Fenton said was about fathers and sons. The fact that his son was standing next to him onstage made it somewhat poignant. The performance of the song got a very enthusiastic response from the crowd. After a very brief interval, the band returned to the stage for the two-song encore. The short and spiky “America” was up first. The crowd was really into it. The show ended with a blistering performance of the rocker “Here Comes The Judge” that was highlighted by great guitar work courtesy of the Fentons. The audience cheered as the band said their goodbyes and departed the stage.
Rock band reunions can be tricky things. In some cases, it becomes obvious that the band should’ve left well enough alone and not bothered with a reunion. That isn’t the case with The Vapors. It’s clear that they still have a lot to offer. And for those of us that didn’t get to see the band the first time around, it’s quite nice to have that opportunity now. Quite a few of the people in the audience at Sunday’s show had been to the previous two nights of shows as well. At this show, Dan Fenton added some youthful energy to the band and reminded many in the crowd of the twentysomething version of his father.
The great DJ sets before, in between, and after the sets by The Split Squad and The Vapors by the Irish DJ Jacqui Carroll deserve a mention. Carroll’s sets were filled with one great Mod tune after another, featuring bands such as The Jam and The Specials, and were appreciated very much by the fans at the show. Carroll hosts a Mod-themed show called Ready Steady Go! on Irish radio station RTE 2XM. The show is currently on hiatus as Carroll pursues further education. But an archive of Carroll’s shows is available for listening at https://www.mixcloud.com/jacquicarrollofficial/. One of the shows archived there features a June 2016 interview that Carroll did with The Vapors’ Dave Fenton.
Once The Vapors return to their native UK, they will playing shows in November and December in Criccieth, Margate, Lewes, Southampton, and London. They also have a date in March at the O2 Kentish Town Forum in London. Their live schedule can be found in the Tour Dates section of the band’s official Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/TheVaporsOfficial.
Goldmine’s September 2016 Q&A with Dave Fenton about the reformation of The Vapors can be read at http://www.goldminemag.com/blogs/vapors-reuniting-first-shows-35-years.
Goldmine’s December 2018 issue includes a 10 Albums That Changed My Life feature with Dave Fenton. The issue goes on sale on Tuesday, November 6th at Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, and select record stores in the USA. The Beatles’ White Album is the cover feature.
The Split Squad’s set list was as follows:
Sorry She’s Mine (cover of The Small Faces song)
I Can’t Remember
Feel The Same About You
Hey Hey Baby
Help Yourself (cover of Jimmy Reed song)
Now Hear This (including bits of Mott The Hoople’s Rock & Roll Queen and The Who’s Sparks)
The Vapors’ set list was as follows:
Live At The Marquee
One Of My Dreams
Waiting For The Weekend
Letter From Hiro
News At Ten
Here Comes The Judge
A big thanks to Si Root for his wonderful photographs. You can visit his Instagram page at @siroot - https://www.instagram.com/siroot