David Johansen, a geographical relief map with lips
Those looking for the classic Bowery Street grime of the New York Dolls are in luck. There are at least a dozen official and bootleg live albums out there, including a “Live Box Set” immortalizing their raw, sloppy garage/glam/blues mash-up that – with iconic junkie/primitive six-string genius Johnny Thunders – presaged punk.
Even with a trio of youngster filling the roles of dead Dolls (Thunders, bassists Arthur Kane, drummers Jerry Nolan/Billy Murcia), it’d be as senseless to expect but a glimpse of that old fury. That said, the Dolls did a decent job resurrecting the old glory Wednesday night at the Beachland, when they choose to do so…
David Johansen pranced and flounced in open imitation of Mick Jagger – even more impressive now that both their faces look like geographical relief maps with lips – while original rhythm guitarist Sylvain Sylvain took over many of Thunders leads with panache, letting second guitarist Sam Conte pick up the rhythm chores. The pint-sized founding guitarist wore a beret which, despite its emasculating effect, managed to match the gritty gnarl of Thunders’ stiletto leads.
The kids – Conte, bassist Sami Yaffa (Hanoi Rocks), and drummer Brian Delaney – provided solid backing and stuck to the background, other than sartorially. Perhaps taking a cue from the band’s outrageous cross-dressing days, Yaffi wore a pink pimp hat/fedora and plastic necklace that cast him as an extra from a Kid Rock video. Conte sported Ray-Bans (natch!) and that timeless spiky shag cut that hasn’t aged a day since the Small Faces. Clad in a pink shirt and vest with a carnation, Conte looked like he got lost on his way to the prom forty years ago. (Johansen went through no such effort, wearing the same shirt he wore in Toronto two days before. That’s one way to bring the funk.)
Sadly, the Dolls felt it necessary to hew closely to their 2006 release, One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This. The idea of rehashing the latest album is a regrettable but somewhat understandable spasm from the days when touring promoted album sales. Seeing as how the reverse is now true – bands put out albums to have something to tour on, and album sales are a pittance against tour & merchandising revenues – wouldn’t it make more sense to “play the hits”? Especially when you’re a band that hasn’t been extant for almost thirty years?
Instead, the Dolls’ performance was top-heavy with their latest album. Tracks like “Punishing World” (dedicated to Kane) and “Dance Like a Monkey” (which seems to echo the Stones’ “Monkey Man”) were delivered with a great deal of fury, but the sight of a 57-year old Johansen, arms curled and scratching his pits while hopping around like a monkey, was more than a little disconcerting.
Which isn’t to say Johansen’s performance was lacking; he was often the best part of the show. His sneering delivery and capering on-stage style are effortlessly endearing, but the newer material is lacking, particularly compared to classics like “Trash,” “Looking for a Kiss” and “Pills,” which lit up the approximately 80% capacity crowd when they got around to playing them.
Those tracks came in the last half of 70-minutes show. They played at least seven tracks from the new album, including “Gotta Get Away From Tommy,” as the last half of a two-song encore kicked off with a sizzling take on their classic “Personality Crisis.” After opening with “Puss N’Boots” and the new album’s “We’re All In Love,” they surprised the crowd with a cover Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart,” which Johansen introduced by calling her “our favorite artist.”
While one can appreciate wanting to avoid the “nostalgia act” tag, and promote the band’s new start, it’s hard to imagine that anyone came to the show to hear the new album. When your fan base has maintained the faith for thirty some years, don’t you owe them a bit more? The Dolls are still a great live show, and after a year of touring they’re airtight, but it’s hard not to leave with the feeling they owed the audience (a nearly equal split of old school 40-somethings and the more youthful contingent) more of the old fire, and less flogging of the new shit. – Chris Parker