When Billy Idol started changing costumes on stage at the Paramount Theatre last night before (what else?) "Flesh For Fantasy," it seemed at first like some post-middle-age bravado. But when he when he eventually took off his shirt entirely, because he’s goddamned Billy Idol, there wasn't the usual gut or inevitable flab you'd expect from an aging rock icon. And he seemed to have all his hair in classic punk-hero fashion, because this man stands in improbable defiance of time.
That made the replication of his classic songs seem even more authentic than, say, the ones performed by a physically mutated Axl Rose. You'd never have guessed that Idol turned 59 at the end of November. Sure, overall the show was slightly more subdued than Idol in his prime. But he still looked and sang like the charismatic rock and pop star he was in his mid- to late twenties.
Idol, born William Broad, came of age in London, where he was a member of the "Bromley Contingent," a group of Sex Pistols fans that included Siouxsie Sioux and Steven Severin. All of them eventually joined popular and even influential bands of the post-punk era: Generation X and Siouxsie & The Banshees, respectively. Last night's openers, Broncho, who brought much of the show's energy, have a parallel story. Broncho hails from Norman, Oklahoma, home of the Flaming Lips. That band's early psychedelic punk explorations remained something of a regional phenomenon until a string of left-field, early '90s college radio rock hits. The way the Sex Pistols related directly to people, eagerly inspiring a movement in their hometown, so too did the Lips mentor artists, local or otherwise. In their own ways, Idol and Broncho front man Ryan Lindsey were able to point to other local kids made good as an example of the possible horizon of cultural relevance or at least benchmark of how it is possible to make one's living through music.
Lindsey's band conveyed a punk spirit with a more expansive palette of sounds, resulting in a kind of experimental pop music that at first blush seemed like an odd choice for the tour. But on stage last night, it just made sense. People in the crowd even cheered Broncho, rather than wonder what some indie rock band was doing opening for Billy Idol. And that acceptance spoke well of those in attendance. It was an honest reaction and enthusiasm for a band whose vibe seemed to mesh with that of the legendary artist they came to see. Lindsey knew these people were here for that.
Billy Idol referred to himself and the equally ageless guitarist Steve Stevens the "Dynamic duo," but with the mildly self-deprecating tone that gives many musicians from the UK a certain grace. While bombastic, Idol had an air of class and that is some of his appeal—he navigates the territory between English modesty and American self-assertion masterfully.
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Between his biggest hits, Idol played some new tracks, some less-well-known songs and the familiar reinvention of songs originally written when Idol was in Generation X ("Dancing With Myself" and "Ready Steady Go"). Billy and the band knew the audience and how to sequence the show. Idol and Stevens got people to participate in the music with a joyful playfulness. The changing of "L.A. Woman" to "Denver Woman" was a little too pandering, but singing about "Hollywood bungalows" was oddly fitting for a town changing so quickly.
Some of the fans got out of line and had to be ejected. Perhaps it's schadenfreude, but seeing people in their forties or older getting a little out of control — and, in at least one case, on the verge of fighting people at a concert at the Paramount Theatre before getting escorted out — was pretty amusing. You expect that at other kinds of shows, but perhaps the music of Billy Idol took some people back enough that they cut loose a bit more and forgot their age and their current priorities at almost every other point of their lives. At least people felt strongly enough about this music, mostly from more than thirty years ago, to get out of the house and to care enough about their experience to risk looking foolish. Most people just got to forget their everyday cares for nearly two hours of powerful music.