Back to the Future: The Retro Futura tour revisits ‘80s synth-pop with acts like Tom Bailey and Howard Jones

Concert Preview

A heavy dose of ’80s pop awaits music fans attending the Retro Futura tour, which stops in Cleveland this week for a show at the Masonic Auditorium. Topping the bill are Howard Jones and former Thompson Twins vocalist Tom Bailey, a couple of guys that cranked out a hefty number of hit singles that scaled the top half of the charts during the decade. As the ’80s bled into the ’90s however, the two gentlemen would choose dramatically different paths.

For Jones, by the time he released his 1992 album In The Running, he had largely abandoned his trademark electronic synth sounds for recordings that had a more organic piano-based feel, including the album’s lead single “Lift Me Up.” He would follow the album’s release with an acoustic tour, but, as Jones told us during a recent phone conversation from his home, it was something that he was quite comfortable with.

“It was a really completely different direction from what people had known me for,” he says. “However, piano is my first instrument. I’ve been playing it since I was seven and I went to music college and really, I’m very, very at home at the piano. So in a way, it was quite natural for me even though people might have thought ‘What’s he doing? Interestingly enough, people really love those shows and I still remember them really fondly. It was great.”

For Bailey, the Thompson Twins would eventually go their separate ways by the early ’90s and he would continue to make music, eventually making the decision to move away from writing pop songs and at that same time, he left his existing catalog of hits that he had created with the Thompson Twins behind, deciding to put that part of his life on the shelf. It was a day that he had seen coming since he stepped onstage with the Twins at Live Aid in 1985, which he recalls was an event that was just as massive for the group as it was for the fans who were watching it on television. But he says it also marked a turning point.

“It’s the first time that so many millions of people were watching all at the same time. I mean, it was a fantastic achievement and I’m very proud of it to this day. But in a way, it was also the end of an era, because I think the ‘80s generation of pop musicians, that was their crowning glory. They staged the biggest festival to show the connection between life and music. Having done it, you couldn’t really top it. So after that, we had to kind of change our game plan, all of us. So to that extent, it was the end of an era.”

Bailey has continued to be musically creative, often balancing several different recording projects at once, including the electronic fusion-based sound of his International Observer releases, music that he says is “not marketed or created as this mass appeal thing.” Best-known for his hits with the Thompson Twins — songs like “Hold Me Now,” “Doctor! Doctor,” “King For A Day” and the ballad “If You Were Here,” which found its way to the ‘80s big screen as part of the soundtrack to the classic John Hughes film Sixteen Candles — he’s had an incredible 27 years since Bailey has sung any of those pop classics live.

It was Jones who helped convince Bailey to take another look at his back catalog. “I know Tom from the ’80s,” he says. “So we went for an Indian meal in London and I persuaded him after 20 years to come back out on the road. I know he’s really excited about it and he can’t wait to play these shows.”

Jones himself is excited for the Retro Futura shows and says “I’ve always been a big fan [of Bailey], so it’s great to have Tom back out there again.”

Fans of Jones’ music, which includes singles like “Life In One Day,” “Everlasting Love,” “Things Can Only Get Better” and the signature ballad “No One Is To Blame” will find that thanks to the progression of technology, it’s a lot easier for him to recreate the electronic sounds of his ‘80s catalog. Jones will perform live with a full band, featuring longtime collaborator Robbie Bronimann, who helps Jones manage the electronic side of things with synthesizers, sequencers and a MacBook Air among the digital toys onstage, with drummer Jonathan Atkinson rounding out the trio. Although the technology makes things easier and infinitely more portable, you can detect Jones’ nervous grin through the phone as he describes the trade-off that you accept with advancements and that “it’s always moving forward and developing and always on the edge of breaking down.”

His most recent album Ordinary Heroes was released in late 2009, but these days, he’s got new ideas on how he’d like to create the material that he writes in the future, driven by the experience of a piece called “Engage!” that he debuted in 2013 during a performance celebrating his 30th anniversary. Jones has always worked to make the audience feel like they’re part of the experience and with “Engage!,” he was able to take that to the next level.

“I think people when they go to a gig, if they’ve got a role to play, it’s that much more exciting when you arrive at the thing and you know you’ve got stuff to do at a certain time and there’s countdowns on the screens for when you do things,” he says. “I mean, it just makes it so much more engaging and that was the whole idea of the ‘Engage!’ project.”

“I wanted the audience to be very involved,” Jones says of the project. “So they had parts to sing and they had things to do during the show holding up visuals on apps that they could download and [they could] have colored gloves and wear fluorescent makeup. I mean, it was a whole thing that the audience was invited to take part in. I think that was maybe the most successful part of it, because people felt so involved.”

Happily, Bailey has also found a new level of engagement, working with his old songs and he’s got cautious optimism that his stint on the Retro Futura tour could bring him back around to writing pop music if it feels right.

“I certainly have an interest, but the creative circumstances have to be present to do it,” he says. “I’m not going to force myself to write pop songs when other things are more important to me. So I don’t know, maybe doing this tour will create that circumstance where I’m intrigued. I’ve certainly found it a lot more intriguing to recreate and sing these songs again than I ever dreamed was going to be the case. I thought it would kind of be going through the motions and if that’s all it could be, I wasn’t going to do it. But I discovered that I’m very excited about recreating the music.”

Without a doubt, his fans are equally excited that he’s back in the pop music game and Retro Futura promises to be a fun look back.

Retro Futura Tour 2014, 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 25, Cleveland Masonic Auditorium, 3615 Euclid Ave., 216-881-6350. Tickets: $18 to $80,