Early ‘80s goth music stresses theatricality. It is nothing if not performative: It is adorned with musical and aesthetic complexities from ghostly bass lines to pounds of eyeliner. So it seems strange to see Peter Murphy, the oft-lauded “Godfather of Goth,” perform a “stripped” set. Yet, as he demonstrated this past Thursday at Thalia Hall, his theatrical flair is not contingent upon the complex visuals found in early Bauhaus music videos. He is a self-contained powerhouse. His performative power is derived by his mere presence.
Murphy first burst onto the music scene as the front man of Bauhaus. His skeletal appearance (featuring gorgeous cheekbones second only to Bowie) and his penchant for macabre lyricism manifested itself in odes to Bela Lugosi, which quickly established him as a figurehead of the goth subculture.
Murphy inspires the same cult fanaticism as a B Horror movie. For Thursday’s concert, hoards of fans draped in black velvet lined up around the block swapping stories about previous Bauhaus tours. I had several conversations with fellow concertgoers about how I’m still not over David Bowie. One man appeared exceedingly confused about how this could be an acoustic set. It was the largest gathering of Chicago goths I had ever seen, and I was in love.
The show opened with Haley Fohr, front woman of Circuit des Yeux. Fohr’s performance was hypnotic; it exemplified the intricacies of the acoustic set. Lanky, and dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, Fohr is an unassuming presence — until she starts to sing. Her voice is brassy: a rich, full, tenor that liquefies to fill the entire space. The set itself was cathartic, with a knowledge of reverb matched only by My Bloody Valentine. Fohr yowled and bellowed her way through each song with the tenacity and mysticism of a whirling dervish.
Watching Fohr, I was reminded of early Patti Smith interviews where Smith has stated that when she is creating she’s “not female, [she’s] an artist.” With only a guitar and that booming, boundless voice, Fohr obliterated any gendered expectations within rock-and-roll. It was cleansing; the sort of music that digs the winter dry skin and oil out of your pores. These are songs that tap into the primal ether of existing as a human. Fohr acted as a divine conduit of noise, not for the sake of loudness, but for the sake of truth.
Murphy appeared onstage just after 10 p.m. like any respectable goth icon. He opened with “Cascade,” a track showcasing his intricate rhythmic sensibilities. Dressed in an asymmetrical white top with a rose tied around his bicep, he chanted, “We have no image” in an almost trance-like manner. Then he started to sing, strutting around the stage proudly.
I will confess that most of my knowledge of Peter Murphy is derived directly from Bauhaus. I had yet to explore his solo career as in-depth as I would have liked, so for most of the night I was hearing songs for the first time, which might have added an extra transcendental layer to the performance.
Peter Murphy knows how to move. Even his most mundane gestures are imbued with a razor-sharp power and precision. He thrives in the tension of performative gestures, tilting his face towards the lights just so to accentuate those famous cheekbones, waving coyly to fans. He was delighted by the crowd, stressing the beauty of Thalia Hall and the fans themselves, exclaiming, “Why look at all you gorgeous little things.”
Peter Murphy is sexy and he knows it. He knows that he is the cause of the female fans exclaiming, “Ok! I can die now” as he launches into “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”
Murphy is often compared to David Bowie; it’s the theatricality and the cheekbones and the benevolent rock-and-roll British-ness. He’s also a diehard Bowie fan. He insisted to SPIN in 2011 that “‘The Man who Sold the World’ was the first truly goth record.” That night, I was on the verge of some sort of exaltative state reveling in the presence of true rock ’n’ roll, and I couldn’t help but think of Bowie.
So when the lights were low and Murphy mused, “Now, y’know we’re all getting older … and life is short. Sometimes people you love pass on and that’s okay ‘cause we’re all here together now. So we’re just gonna take a moment, and sing a song for David Bowie.” I sort of lost my mind, bawling through the entire, soaring, reverent cover of “The Bewlay Brothers.” But isn’t that the power of rock-and–roll — the ability to transcend normalcy for a brief moment? I will count this transcendent quality as my favorite aspect of rock-and-roll. It is something that continually compels me to inhabit these spaces again and again.
Murphy played for almost two hours straight, seamlessly interspersing Bauhaus classics amongst his own solo works. He played not one, but two encores, grabbing the hands of awestruck fans as they stood up and edged closer to the stage. He closed with “I’ll Fall With Your Knife,” a triumphant track with a surprisingly peppy riff. It’s a track that’s sordid, striking and dare I say, optimistically perfect for uniting the crowd: a mélange of misfits — such gorgeous little things.
This year’s CIMM Fest took place April 13 to 17, highlighting 99 films and bands within the span of five days. If you’d like to learn more about CIMM Fest, visit cimmfest.org, or follow them on their Twitter , Instagram, or Facebook.