Kate Pierson, resplendent in her candy apple red hair and black-and-white ensemble, stood on the stage under the big white tent at the Festival at Sandpoint on Friday night and asked the assembled fans a question:
“Who wants to go to Idaho?”
Pierson, vocalist with the iconic pop group the B-52’s, smiled when the crowd roared its answer, and she and fellow founding band members Fred Schneider and Cindy Wilson launched into a tight and fun version of the classic B-52’s song, “Private Idaho.”
Already five songs into the band’s energetic set on the shore of the Pend Oreille River, the song was an early high point in a night of high points. The B-52’s still know how to put on a highly entertaining show peppered with hits from throughout the band’s discography.
Formed in 1976 in the fertile musical breeding ground of Athens, Georgia, the B-52’s became well known for a retro thrift-store chic look and quirky new wave pop music. Thankfully, after four decades the music remains the stuff of a good party.
The trio of singers – backed by Sterling Campbell on drums, bassist Tammy Wormworth, Greg Suran on guitar and Ken Maiuri on keyboards – started the night with “Cosmic Thing,” the lead-off single and title track of the band’s 1989 multi-platinum breakthrough album. That bright and lively performance lead to “Mesopotamia,” from the 1982 EP of the same name. The band ended that song with a riff from Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” teasing the audience with a hint of what might have been. (A B-52’s cover of “Raspberry Beret”? Yes, please.)
By the next song, “Lava,” it was clear the fans in the festival’s crowded dance area were on their feet for the duration, ignoring the smoke that filled the air from the region’s wildfires. (The air didn’t seem as bad in Sandpoint on Friday evening as it had been in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene earlier in the day, so that was a relief.)
After “Funplex” and an upbeat “Private Idaho,” Schneider took a break and let the women take the lead with a series of duets, “Summer of Love,” “52 Girls” and the huge hit, “Roam.” On this last song in particular, we’re reminded how well Wilson – who was sporting one of those trademark beehive hairdos – and Pierson embody the band’s infectious harmonies. And the audience sang along with every word.
Schneider has one of the most distinctive voices in pop music, and it’s impossible to imagine the B-52’s without him. So when he returned for “Channel Z,” from “Cosmic Thing,” fans could see just how much fun these three have performing together. That energy was contagious. They powered through “Dance this Mess Around” and “Wig” before ending with the song everyone had been waiting for.
For those of us in college in the late ’80s and early ’90s, “Love Shack” was on the soundtrack of every party we attended. From the moment Schneider sang, “If you see a faded sign at the side of the road,” the crowd went bananas. But they saved the biggest cheers to reply to Schneider later in the song, “I can’t hear you!”
The band exited the stage, but returned soon enough for a quick encore. “Planet Claire,” from their 1979 debut album, “The B-52’s,” featured Pierson on some of her signature vocal gymnastics. The fan favorite “Whammy Kiss” followed. Then Schneider grabbed the microphone, and said, “Let’s go to Sandpoint beach!” With the iconic, surf-inflected opening of their cult hit, “Rock Lobster,” the B-52’s seemed poised to end their show on a high note. And they did. They poured energy and fun and heart into a song that sounds as fresh and weird as it did in 1979.
It was a tight set, and surely there were some fans who were disappointed their favorite song didn’t make the list. (No “Legal Tender”? No “Songs for a Future Generation”?) Overall, however, the band offered a nice mix of fun stuff from a long and illustrious career. I was not alone in being grateful for the chance to visit our own “Private Idaho” again.
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