Shot! Steps live at the Brighton Centre
Down to a quartet thanks to Covid, Steps drew on every trick in the book to put on a spectacle, but behind the smoke and mirrors an endless succession of pop bangers only served to expose their onstage limitations in a production that all too often verged on pantomime
I first saw Steps nine years ago when they played the Brighton Centre. My overriding memory of that show was the fact there was not a single musician onstage and Steps just sang along to a backing track. Despite this, no one in the audience seemed to either notice or mind. For a live show, that felt a step too far.
Since then, I can’t recall too many other gigs I’ve been to where there were no live musicians at all. Brighton Pride may be the only high profile event where this was standard practice. Of course, many artists these days embellish their performance with backing tapes, but when you’re only doing the vocals, you can’t deny you’re essentially performing karaoke.
There’s no denying Steps have always had an uncomfortable relationship with live shows. Put together by Pete Waterman who wanted to create a British version of ABBA, the five members were chosen for their youthful looks and outgoing personalities. I doubt they expected to still be together much more than year or so later, let alone go on to forge a hugely successful career for themselves. Along the way they sold over 20 million records and despite having their share of highs and lows, the one thing they never lost was their adoring fanbase.
2021 saw them back again with an extensive UK arena tour, one that always appeared to be a dress rehearsal for even bigger things in 2022 which will mark their 25th anniversary. But as with so many things in Steps world even that celebratory milestone is somewhat far-fetched. The truth is they’ve actually only been together for ten years as they split not once but twice: in 2001 for ten years and again at the end of 2012 until they reformed for a second time at the beginning of 2017.
That they’re still as popular today as they were all those years ago, is probably down to the fact that they’ve hardly tinkered with their winning formula and they continue to give their fans precisely what they want. And that essentially is a fun night singing along to all the hits and joining in with all the dance moves. You really know what you’re getting with Steps.
That being said, there are always a few surprises. On November 19th, for example, Faye Tozer tested positive for Covid. Rather than cancelling the rest of the tour, Steps continued as a four-piece. And it was as a quartet that they arrived in Brighton. Being that they’re so tightly choreographed, one has to assume being a member down must have presented some challenges for the rest of the group and the production as a whole. If that was the case, all concerned did a good job of hiding it as Faye really wasn’t missed at all.
Of course, when you’re singing along to a backing track, the fact you’re one voice down is unlikely to be noticed. There again, a Steps live show is always greater than the sum of its parts and if you analyse what’s happening, it’s all about distraction. This is the subtext behind the spectacle, because in all honesty, Steps really aren’t as good as they’d like you to believe.
Take away the smoke and mirrors and you wouldn’t be left with much. In reality, this is more musical theatre than it is a proper pop concert.
That doesn’t mean they’re not popular, appearing not once but twice for the second tour running at Britain’s biggest and most prestigious venue, the O2 Arena says everything about their enduring popularity.
During their near two-hour show, Steps draw on every trick in the book to give the impression you’re witnessing a theatrical extravaganza. It’s as if they realise they need to constantly wow the audience with a ‘special something’ or they’ll be seen for what they are. That means the show is continually punctuated with one theatrical technique after another to ensure no one watching can ever get bored.
Following a tension building countdown, a large box with video screens introducing each of the members, slowly lifts to reveal the fab four dressed in purple, with sequinned capes.
From now on, there can be almost no spontaneity as each song has its own running time and specific choreography. In truth, the dance moves are childishly simple and the trademark Steps hand gestures are about as obvious as they can be.
The four robotically move around the stage making as many combinations as four people can achieve. Even the adlibs between songs are scripted, being almost word for word regardless of the venue.
And then there are the costumes, lots of them. Indeed I counted at least five full costume changes. And just like their dance moves, Steps’ panto-esque outfits are pretty uninspired. Getting them on and off so many times, requires a range of theatrical techniques. So much so, that the main purpose of the six dancers appears to be creating a distraction from when Steps aren’t on stage.
The dancers also bring props on and off and slide open the large illuminated logo that is centre stage, through which Steps can leave or enter the stage. And, if you haven’t noticed, there’s also a shiny new logo which replaced the familiar italicised version in September 2020.
Talking of the production, it appears the stageset was created with one thing in mind: to incorporate as many bells and whistles as possible so no one watching the show can get bored.
There was a thrust, a revolve, an underfloor riser, a stairway and a huge mirrorball, and all were used in the transitions between one song and the next to enable each one to feature a different ‘look’ to its predecessor.
And of course there’s the screens themselves. Although the outer two were used for live vision, the main screens were employed mainly to cover costume changes. In addition, there were brief black and white clips of the band members singing some old classics within a vintage TV screen. Lisa did Baby Love, H did It’s Not Unusual, while Lee sung Wild Thing and Claire You’re My World.
We also saw clips from the early days or from previous videos. These however only served to emphasise quite how much the individual members have aged. Of course they’re all now in their mid-40s and some, like H and Lisa are almost unrecognisable from their younger selves.
Seeing H in particular was quite a shock. While the songs remain the same, the fresh faced individuals they once were now look dangerously close to members of a pantomime cast.
Musically, there’s no denying Steps are stuck in the 90s. Pretty much every song they sing along to feels like a step back in time. Even the one they’re most associated with, 1998s Tragedy, was first released almost two decades earlier by its authors, the Bee Gees. And there’s no getting away from the fact much of their back catalogue, including their most recent material from 2020s What The Future Holds Pt 2. could easily pass for ABBA outtakes.
Regardless of their lack of ambition, or more likely, their fear of changing a winning formula, their live show is an endless stream of pop bangers. But not one of them is penned by a Steps member, and most are covers. There’s even one written by Bjorn and Benny from ABBA!
The vast majority feature lead vocals by Claire, hardly surprising as she has by far the best voice. Had it been her rather than Faye who was ruled out with Covid, I’m not so sure the four remaining members could have kept the show on the road.
Call me cynical, but I really believe Steps are motivated by money. It’s no coincidence, for example, that all five members now have young families, with Lee being the latest to have a child.
It’s also no secret that family life tugged at their heartstrings when it came to committing to this tour. One has to question if it wasn’t for another huge payday— and prime tickets for the Brighton show were going for over £500 on the venue’s resale site — whether Steps (at least with this lineup) would still be in existence.
What you can’t deny however is that their fans adore them. I’m sure they not only throughly enjoyed the show, but can’t wait to see them again. They won’t have to wait long for that to happen because Steps have already announced big plans for their ‘silver jubilee’ next year which will no doubt include another album and an even more extensive tour.
But this tour had to be hastily curtailed, as on the very same day that Faye Tozer’s period of isolation came to an end, Lee Latchford-Evans tested positive for Covid, forcing Steps to postpone their last two shows.
This one ended how it begun, although this time the giant cube slowly descended from the ceiling enveloping the four members. It was a neat, if not especially creative, way of bringing things to a conclusion.
Setlist: What The Future Holds | One For Sorrow | Heartbreak In This City (feat Michelle Visage on video) | Neon Blue | Take Me For A Ride | Video clips of band members singing 60s songs)| 5,6,7,8 feat Groove Is In The Heart (Deee-Lite cover) | After The Love Has Gone | Something In Your Eyes (Jenny Silver cover) | Say You’ll Be Mine | Chain Reaction (Diana Ross cover) | Story Of A Heart (Benny Andersson, Bjorn Ulvaeus cover) (Steps on video filmed at Lullingstone Castle) | It’s The Way You Make Me Feel | The Slightest Touch (Five Star cover) | A Hundred Years Of Winter | Last Thing On My Mind (Bananarama cover) | Stomp | Heartbeat | Better The Devil You Know (Kylie Minogue cover) mash up with Vogue (Madonna cover) | Love’s Got A Hold On My Heart segue into Summer Of Love | Better Best Forgotten | Deeper Shade Of Blue (Tina Cousins cover) || Here And Now | Scared Of The Dark | Tragedy (Bee Gees cover)
Best song: Deeper Shade Of Blue
Behind the shot: These portraits were taken using the Olympus OM-D E-M1 with the M Zuiko 1.8 75mm lens and the camera’s built-in digital zoom. I was only able to shoot the first three songs from the pit. The challenge as always was to come away with a set of interesting images that were different from those taken by other photographers shooting the tour. Given that most of the time I was shooting almost straight up at Steps, I must say I’m quite pleased with many of these portraits as well as the group shots. Photographed in Brighton on 25 November 2021
About the author: Based in Sussex-by-the-Sea, on England’s south coast, Gary is a creative writer and image-maker. He specialises in out of the ordinary portraits of musicians and people with interesting faces, as well as photographing some of the world’s finest flowers and gardens. With no concerts or major events taking place during lockdown, Gary turned his attention to creatively capturing the landscapes of West Sussex. On the writing side, he also penned deep dives into some of his favourite songs beginning with Bryan Ferry’s ‘These Foolish Things’ ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials and ‘All The Young Dudes’ by Mott the Hoople. Most recently, he has written a biography of Robert Palmer and the story behind Whitesnake’s ‘Still Of The Night’. All these can be found here on Medium, along with his reviews of gigs and events and chats with musicians.