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Pop CultureFebruary 7, 2017

Live review: B*Witched, Atomic Kitten, S Club 2, Liberty X, oh my!


Sam Brooks relives his pre-teen years at a live grab-bag of reunited late-’90s/early-aughts pop.

On Saturday night, Auckland was full of people raring to see a band that had nurtured them through the rough times, to cheer musicians who were long past their prime but didn’t care, to hear songs they loved performed live for possibly the last time ever. These people were going to have a good night, even if the band in question phoned it in.

And that was just the Guns N’ Roses concert.

About 15 minutes away at the Aotea Centre, a Frankensteinian rearrangement of late-’90s/early-aughts pop was about to get underway. Its origins can be traced back to 2013, a year that brought us a lot of developments in music, including my mother’s unfortunate long-time ringtone ‘Blurred Lines’ and the worldwide success of Herald clickbait-generator Lorde. But none were so important as The Big Reunion, a British reality-ish show which sought to Weekend at Bernies some prominent bands from the late-’90s/early-aughts in order to cash in.

The bands that emerged successful from that show, and four years later washed onto our shores, were B*Witched (‘C’est La Vie’, ‘Rollercoaster’), Atomic Kitten (‘Whole Again’, ‘Eternal Flame’), S Club 3 (‘S Club Party’, other songs that you probably think are by Steps) and Liberty X (‘Just A Little’ and nothing else you remember).

Calling it a Frankensteinian rearrangement seems cruel, but is also the bleak truth. Liberty X brought over their three female members. B*Witched was one witch down. Atomic Kitten had pulled in a member of Liberty X to fill out the felines. Most upsetting, the depleted-through-general-attrition S Club 3 had become S Club 2, thanks to a stomach disease sidelining lead singer Jo.

The house DJ seemed to be setting us up for disappointment right from the start. When you’re trying to get people in the mood for some bands who were hot in the nineties and did not survive the brutality of the aughts, it seems a little bit cruel to get the audience roused up with the likes of Britney Spears, Destiny’s Child and TLC.

Luckily for him, and the bands, the set list served to get people out of their seats and pumped for seeing the songs of their youths. These were people who wanted just a little bit more, they wanted to reach for the stars, they wanted to be whole again and they wanted to blame the goddamned weatherman.

After an impromptu singalong to ‘Baby One More Time’ and some classically awkward British hypemanning, the lights went down and we got our de-facto opening act, Liberty X.

For a band that is maybe most famous for being the one that isn’t Hear’Say and when you’ve been allotted, maybe generously, two songs, Liberty X went down a damn treat. But if you’ve only got two songs, you can’t really go wrong with a cane-assisted, energetic performance of early-00s earworm ‘Just A Little’, and a Richard X-assisted cover of Chaka Khan classic ‘Ain’t Nobody’. Michelle, Jessica and Kelli looked grateful, happy and excited to be there.

S Club 2, as the DJ jokingly, and a little bit shadily, introduced them, was a delightful mess. Sans their lead singer, an energetic Bradley and a wide-eyed but game Tina ran through the band’s hits, and there is honestly nothing more bizarre than watching two people with some very clever and subtle sound-mixing on their mics, attempt to fill in for seven people. Although seeing two people gamely try and get an audience to dance to the ‘funky, funky beat’ in 2017 comes pretty damn close.

When they brought an audience member up onstage to sing some of a song, it felt less like a planned moment and more like they’re recruiting for the rest of their tour. If S Club 3 feels like an army soldiering on in a bad situation, S Club 2 feels like that one guy on an island in the middle of nowhere who has no idea that the war is long over. The DJ asked Bradley and Tina to come back on, and I can imagine them giving him the darkest look of his blessed life.

And then Atomic Kitten brought us the character that is Kerry Katona. While Natasha Hamilton showcased some surprisingly robust pipes, and Michelle Heaton slipped into the trio like she’d been performing with them since the start, Kerry Katona fiddled with her costume onstage, half-stepped choreography and frequently found herself at the side of stage for a centre-stage song finish. It was like watching your primary school music teacher give it a go, and it was the most captivating thing in the whole damn world. When your only solo is the spoken word bridge of ‘Whole Again’, you know that maybe you’re there because the other Atomic Kitten is afraid of flying and not because you’re a founding member. (No, seriously that’s the reason she’s not here.)

When I booked for the concert, it seemed odd that B*Witched were, technically speaking, the headliners. I’ve always thought of them more as what you would get if The Corrs decided to have a bunch of RTDs before writing their songs, but last night proved that these women had more than a few hits, and also have the added bonus of having actually produced new material since their heyday. (I bought ‘Champagne or Guinness’ as quickly as I possibly could on iTunes, and it’s sitting at about 18 plays right now. I have amazing taste in music, obviously.)

But also these three Irish women were the clear highlights of the entire lineup. Not only did they have a few more upbeat songs to draw from (‘Rollercoaster’, ‘Jessie Hold On’), but their new material holds up surprisingly well against both their older songs and current pop trends (‘Love & Money’ could comfortably be a Katy Perry b-side). What holds up even better is their aw-shucks charisma and their circa-2006 Stage Challenge choreography. These are three friends who genuinely seem to like performing the songs that made them briefly famous in their teens; they also seem to like performing together.

People came to relive the pop songs they loved more than anything. I remember these songs from when I was a little gay boy growing up into a surly preteen. They were anthemic, they were big and they felt like they promised a future of uncomplicated happiness. Around me there were people who made out to these songs in high school, pop kids who remember watching these videos on C4 flashbacks, and parents who snuck their kids’ CDs into their people movers for covert listens. These bands could have just as easily gone out there and gone through the motions, lip-syncing listlessly to backing tracks, but instead they gave it their all. Their energy was infectious, and for two-and-a-half hours it was like being transported back to a more innocent time, before we had to contend with the likes of Meghan Trainor.

And I guarantee you there was nothing more terrifying anywhere in Auckland on that Saturday night – more terrifying than anything at Guns N’ Roses, more terrifying than anything at the Nines – than two thousand people screaming “C’EST LA VIE!” when B*Witched left for a very obvious setlist-encore break without performing their monster hit.

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