The Go-Go’s have never had a harmonic bicoastal convergence like the one they’re enjoying in both Los Angeles and New York this month. On the east coast, Broadway is currently playing host to previews of “Head Over Heels” — not the real Go-Go mania, but an incredible simulation. Out west, the group kicked off a three-night reunion residency Monday evening at the Hollywood Bowl, where the fireworks are not between Kathy Valentine’s and the rest of the band’s lawyers (she’s back!) but above the bandshell.
There’s a funny kind of reversal going on here, though. When it was announced that “Head Over Heels” would use the band’s music as a song score for a theatrical musical-comedy, a lot of people naturally feared how their songs might lose their rock and roll luster in being bigger and Broadway-ized. Yet their ‘80s and ‘90s hits are rendered pretty faithfully, instrumentally, anyway, by an all-female pit band. Meanwhile, it’s at their own appearances at the Bowl that the music is being treated with some additional pomp and circumstance, in the form of backing by the L.A. Philharmonic for a good portion of their setlist. For the purposes of this engagement, they got the beat, and the bassoons, too.
The music of the Go-Go’s isn’t as inherently cinematic as that of some of the other acts who’ve shared the stage with an in-house orchestra at the Bowl; the Moody Blues they’re not. But that didn’t mean the marriage Monday night wasn’t fun, whether the Phil was working in tandem with the style of the band’s songs or a little bit in opposition. If you’d taken a look at the group’s recent setlists, you probably figured it was a given the orchestra would join in on the opening number, “This Town,” a moody favorite with a lush new arrangement that brought out more of the tension in the tune, making the group’s old Hollywood haunts sound like a place James Bond might stop by. On the other hand, you would have lost a bet if you made a common-sense wager that the eternally goofy “Cool Jerk” would be one of the songs the Philharmonic sat out. The orchestra joined in on that one too, even taking time out for an extended mid-song fanfare that no one could possibly conceivably do the Watusi to. This 90-piece-plus rendition of “Cool Jerk” was as ridiculous as it sounds, and as completely delightful.
For about half of the 16 songs, the orchestra sat on their nimble hands and allowed the Go-Go’s to be their unencumbered, scrappier selves, which was a cool perk, too. These three Bowl shows (wrapping up on the 4th) follow a pair of out-of-town warm-up gigs the band did sans violins at theaters in Oakland and San Diego last week. Those might’ve been a bit more fun for fans in their X T-shirts who wanted to be reminded of the days when the Go-Go’s “got our start just one mile from here,” as Jane Wiedlin reminded the crowd, at the Masque. If the energy seemed a bit diffuse at times at the Bowl, that might have had less to do with the presence of a conductor than just how spread out the members were, even though Belinda Carlisle eventually skipped or sashayed around to the other members, like she was doing her own tour of the Bowl’s vast stage.
It was an ever-so-slight spoiler that, just as Valentine has come back into the group, Gina Schock is out, not because of any drama but because, according to Carlisle, she’s recovering from surgery. (Her longtime drum tech, Chris Arredondo, filled her seat… or, as Carlisle put it in during some improv in “Cool Jerk,” he “saved our ass and gave us some class.”) It’s fun seeing the understudy finally get the lead, but does it feel a little wrong seeing a dude at center stage? Yeah, just a bit.
Yet with or without a key member, the band was tight and spirited, and there was every reason to be pleased they’ve gotten it back together for this victory lap, just two years after their farewell tour. (The members have explained in interviews that they didn’t mean to quit playing live altogether – just the wandering minstrel part.) Carlisle still gets her Ann-Margret on as effectively as ever, Wiedlin still twirls like it’s 1981 and, with their slightly more modest personas, Valentine and Charlotte Caffey remain as rock-solid as they were in the band’s salad days. Schock’s absence is as good a reason as any why they need to do this again — even if it remains just a localized thing — and really get their reunion right: “Head Over Heels” shouldn’t be the only place people can go to hear a song as great as “Head Over Heels.”