‘We are Culture Club: a living, breathing soap opera. The amount of drama on this stage would kill a beginner,” says Boy George, with the manner of someone who’s only relaying the facts. Note that his reunited pop/reggae/soul combo are touring as Boy George & Culture Club, which somewhat undermines George’s insistence that the four-man group are a democracy. And four is currently three: the Sun suggested that drummer Jon Moss was sacked after a recent US tour. George has strongly denied this was the case and said Moss was “taking a break” to spend time with his kids. His absence passes without so much as a mention.
Guitarist Roy Hay and bassist Mikey Craig are here, though, and three-quarters of a punchy, motivated Culture Club are better than no Culture Club – a band who are as extraordinary now as they were when they first appeared in 1982. They’ve just released a long-delayed album that debuted at No 12, their best chart position since 1986. The dismantling of gender and sexuality norms that defines modern pop has tendrils in Culture Club’s blurring of the same lines – a much braver act in an era when national papers could with impunity call George a “gender-bender”. And, as a 57-year-old “national wreckage” (which he prefers to “treasure”), the Boy still has things to offer.
There’s the voice, for one. The youthful purity has matured into a burnished lower range, perfect for 80s heartbreakers such as Time and Victims – the latter torchily performed by George alone, with Hay on piano – and the rattling blues piece Runaway Train, from new album Life. (The handful of Life tracks played tonight don’t stray far from the soul-pop template, but are fresh enough to keep Culture Club out of the nostalgia category.) With the jazzy fluidity comes more breathing space, too. The band’s debut hit, Do You Really Want to Hurt Me, is slowed down and only gradually blossoms into its hip-swinging reggae chorus. Another tick in the credit column is a reflectiveness that George didn’t possess as a callow pop colossus. Serving time in 2009 for assaulting an escort induced him to change his life, and the empathy he accrued now goes into new songs such as Different Man – a gospel-ish benediction written after he read that Sly Stone was living in a van.
There’s also, amid the eye-scorching lighting effects and ragamuffin-cum-catwalk suits, an acknowledgment that life is too short for pettiness. That is one way of interpreting the appearance of Wham!’s I’m Your Man in the middle of the 1983 hit Church of the Poison Mind. George and George Michael had only recently mended their tattered friendship when Michael died; if this buoyant cover is a tribute, it’s a sweet one. Meanwhile, louche cocktail-bar covers of Get It On and Let’s Dance slip into the setlist because George is a lifelong T Rex and Bowie nut.
If Culture Club are angling to make gigs like these a long-term thing – unlikely, because of George’s well-established DJ career – they’re lucky in having a fanbase happy to dance to new material. But the biggest roar of the night still goes to – of course – 35-year-old Karma Chameleon.
• At Wembley Arena, 14 November, then touring until 25 November.