Those who thought INXS’s music died with lead singer Michael Hutchence’s suicide in 1997 should have been at Santa Ana Casino auditorium Friday night.
Touring for the first time since Hutchence’s death, INXS showed it is alive again with Jon Stevens taking over lead vocals. Stevens, whose vocals sound hauntingly similar to those of Hutchence, led the band through a hit-laden 23-song set reminiscent of INXS in its hey day.
Stevens has some awfully big boots to fill. Charismatic and full of sex appeal, Hutchence was the consummate rock ‘n’ roll band front man while INXS established itself as one of the top groups of the 1980s and ’90s.
And so the inevitable comparisons between Stevens and Hutchence must be made, however unfair they may be. But Stevens fared surprisingly well — looking the part, sounding the part and playing the part of INXS’s lead singer.
The show opened symbolically with a snippet of Hutchence singing “Never Tear Us Apart.” Back-lit from above by a single spotlight, Andrew Farriss soulfully sang the first lines of “By My Side” as one-by-one the rest of the original band members — Jon and Tim Farriss, and Gary Garry Beers and Kirk Pengilly — took their places on stage.
Stevens was the last to arrive. He picked up the vocals, and the show was on. “New Sensation” and “Listen Like Thieves” followed, and INXS was on its way to winning over the audience for another 90 minutes.
Midway through the show, Stevens gave way to Andrew and Jon Farriss and Pengilly, who delivered an acoustic version of “Shine Like It Does.” The next song was dedicated to Hutchence’s memory. The band performed “Never Tear Us Apart” while black and white images of Hutchence were projected on video screens behind them.
It was a touching tribute experienced by an all-too-sparse audience. The 3,000-seat venue was only about half-full, made up mostly of 40 somethings with a spattering of younger fans born about the time INXS initially came on the scene.
Too many people from central New Mexico missed what could turn out to be the beginning of a rare and remarkable revival. Not often does a band recover from the loss of its lead singer, but INXS may prove to be an exception.
The band played two songs, “Sugar” and “Hunger,” which Stevens introduced as being unrecorded, signaling that INXS has not been lifeless over the past five years.
The survivors apparently used that time wisely to develop new material and find a potential savior — someone with a semblance of Hutchence’s stage presence, who could sing the old hits and help them pick up where they left off five years ago. With fellow Aussie Stevens, they may have found their man.
Stevens didn’t just do a Hutchence impersonation. He sheds strains of his predecessor’s raw edge for a more friendly, forthcoming approach.
Early in the show, Stevens knelt down to pat the head of a 3-year-old child held by its mother. Later, he implored those sitting in the back of the half-empty auditorium to move closer to the stage, eventually inviting four lucky fans to come up on stage to dance and shake tambourines and maracas. Between songs, the other band members frequently threw guitar picks and drumsticks into the crowd, gaining further admiration.
INXS may have plotted these strategies as a way to reconnect with its old audience, but they didn’t need to. The reincarnation of the band was fully accepted, from the evocative introduction of Stevens to the four-song encore, which began with the peace-promoting “The Stairs” and ended with one of their first hits, “Don’t Change.”
With Stevens, INXS’s sound hasn’t changed. It will be interesting to see if the band’s rigorous tour schedule, which takes them through North and South America, and the promise of new recordings to come, will raise INXS from the dead and enable it to relive the mass popularity it once enjoyed.