Monday, April 9, 2012

Alive and Kicking

Billy Idol
02 August 2006: House of Blues, Cleveland, Ohio

Billy Idol is a living blueprint for VH1’s Behind the Music – culturally significant past (the Bromley Contingent), failed but influential first band (Generation X), solo superstardom, excesses that nearly killed him (motorcycle accident, drug overdose), clever comeback (The Wedding Singer bit-part), well-received new album (Devil’s Playground), and a sense of humor about his canon and place in history. Taking the stage with the partner in his most successful endeavors, guitarist Steve Stevens, Idol gyrated, teased, joked, and delivered the kind of show you hope for from an icon.

Idol has a funny habit of covering other artists’ songs, so it wasn’t surprising that the two hour set covered nearly every aspect of his career, and a few others’ as well. He has recorded tunes by the Doors, Simple Minds, and Mungo Jerry, and on this night he added a new one to the repertoire. If I told you he covered Van Halen’s “Jump”, what would your reaction be? Mine was much like the crowd around me: Nervous laughter at the opening keyboards, uneasy confusion that he was really going to do the song, and ultimately buying into it.

The run-through of Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” was breezy and appropriate, much like the version found on keyboardist Derek Sherinian’s solo album, Blood of the Snake (with Idol on vocals and Slash on guitar). But the Doors’ “L.A. Woman” carried with it a drawn-out psychedelic freak-out jam in the middle, while Idol tossed logo-ed cloth Frisbees into the crowd, and those bizarre additions – my only complaints on the night – repeated themselves throughout the concert.

Along with an extended guitar solo centerpiece, there were far too many extended guitar solo jams added to various numbers. While Stevens is an undeniably exceptional guitarist, I would have preferred a more limited number of in-song solos and rather had the criminally absent “Cradle of Love” – and even Cyberpunk’s “Shock to the System” – in their place. The other complaint is really more of an oddity: Idol spent a large part of the night tossing sundry “stuff” into the crowd... things like autographed drum sticks and scraps of paper and the aforementioned cloth Frisbees (also available for sale in the lobby). He actually gave out an entire case of bottled water – one by one – over the course of a single song!

When he wasn’t throwing things into the crowd to the point of distraction, Idol had the peculiar habit of spending guitar solos at the back corner of the drum riser playing a single cymbal with intense concentration. Peccadilloes aside, the show and showmanship were fantastic. The classics were delivered with professionalism and a freshness that belied the age of both the songs and the performers. For a man who has notoriously abused his body, the former William Broad looks incredible. And there was plenty of opportunity to see it, as Idol stripped off his t-shirt after just two songs. It was the first of three wardrobe changes and chest-baring over the course of the night. Seeing him on stage – ripped abs, pumping fist, gyrating pelvis, signature sneer – it was hard to get your head around the fact that the man was just shy of 51.

After Idol turned to his musical soul mate and told him, “Steve, show ‘em what a hit song sounds like,” the crowd reaction to Stevens’ shredding opening guitar of “White Wedding, Pt. 1” packed storm surge intensity. Classics like “To Be a Lover”, “Rebel Yell” (introduced as “the new American anthem!”), “Hot in the City”, and the barely-contained raw energy of the Generation X nugget “Ready Steady Go” played equally well to the crowd. There was a strong rockabilly bent on much of the night courtesy of the song selection, and a bit of Spanish flair thanks to Stevens’ rendition of “Eyes without a Face” and his solo. But the evening never felt forced or like you were watching a “has been.” The show was fresh, fun, and (yes) vital.

Tommy James and the Shondells’ set closing “Mony Mony” helped solidify the genuine sense of fun and appreciation of the band. It’s a song that still plays well live, especially when you’re surrounded by 1,200 other people also screaming “Hey! Get laid! Get fucked!” at the top of their lungs in pure juvenile glee. All five band members strapped on guitars (drummer Brian Tichy handed off the sticks for duration of the song), and ended the show throwing up a wall of sound at the very lip of the stage. When the pulsating guitars were replaced by the crowd’s approval, and the rest of the band had made their way off stage, Idol stood alone, grinning from ear to ear, and sang a few a capella bars of “we’ll meet again some sunny day,” letting out a bit of a laugh as he made his way backstage.

(An edited version of this piece was previously published by PopMatters.)

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