House of Blues
May 17, 2017
Few human institutions make it to the 40-year mark. Most marriages are lucky to last half as long, while entire governments have risen and collapsed and risen again in less time. This axiom applies even more rigidly to punk bands, the best remembered of which have, for the most part, been defunct for decades. The Sex Pistols didn’t make it out of the 1970s, the Clash crapped out in the '80s, and the Dead Kennedys are still touring, but took a 15-year hiatus to sue each other in the interim.
The Damned, like any other group, have had their share of personnel changes and existential fits and starts (they took a break of their own in the early '90s). They’re also often overlooked – whether due to their forays into Goth rock or their lack of mainstream Stateside success – in discussions about punk’s progenitors. This should no longer be the case, for the Damned are as deserving as any, if not more so, of a 40th-anniversary celebration tour, and they proved why to an enthusiastic crowd at the House of Blues Wednesday night.
A good part of that enthusiasm came courtesy of openers the BellRays, a California punk-adjacent rock act. Front woman Lisa Kekaula, with her splendid pipes and impressive Afro, was an incongruous but welcome sight at a punk show, and they warmed up the audience admirably (though I double-taked at guitarist Bob Vennum, who looks alarmingly like Murry Hammond of the Old '97s).
The Damned took the stage with the assurance of a band secure in its legacy, launching into a quick combo of “Melody Lee,” from Machine Gun Etiquette, followed by “Generals,” the band’s ode to the waning days of WWII. With four decades and ten albums worth of material, you might be surprised to learn the band played nothing post-1986’s Anything, with selections riding heavily on MGE, a 38-year old album that’s as vibrant today as it was during the ascent of Margaret Thatcher. The night also featured several covers, most of which were expected: “Jet Boy, Jet Girl,” “Eloise,” and the always superlative rendition of Love's “Alone Again Or,” which as far as this reviewer is concerned is a Damned song now, Damn it.
Singer Dave Vanian roamed the stage with an agility contradicting his 60(!) years. His hair is still swept back, Dracula-style, but the Van Dyke beard lent him a startling resemblance to Michael Sheen in the Underworld movies (thus completing the transformation from vampire to werewolf, I suppose). Fellow founding member Captain Sensible, alas, was consigned to play his Gibson SG on a toilet the entire set, courtesy of a broken rib suffered in Toronto. He was also responsible for most of the stage banter ("Every heard of a show called The Young Ones?", of course to introduce "Nasty").
The rest of the troupe — it doesn't seem fair to call them the "new guys," as they've been Damned as long as anyone not named Vanian or Sensible — were also up to the task. Bassist Stu West's bouncing countered Vanian's stalking, while drummer Pinch taunted us mildly ("Nice venue you've got here: hello, Fitzgerald's!", later amending it to "Shitzgerald's"), and keyboardist Monty Oxymoron capered like a mad scientist.
Listening to the Damned, you realize a few things. For starters, their music's almost too melodic for punk, which has doubtless contributed to their longevity. Also, their songs are still largely relevant today. There are exceptions, of course: "Disco Man" doesn't hold up quite as well three decades removed from Saturday Night Fever, and "Plan 9 Channel 7" hearkens back to the old Goth days. But the bleak "History of the World (Part 1)" is, if anything, more fitting than ever, while back-handed audience love letter "Fan Club" and "Anti-Pope" are pretty evergreen, the latter being about as overly political as anything the band ever wrote.
And like that, it was over. After a blistering two hours — and two encores — the Damned departed. Speaking for the old fans, it's hard to find anything to complain about. A band doesn't get to its 40th year without knowing how to thrill a crowd, and the set list was essentially a greatest hits of punk rock, including "New Rose," "Love Song," "Nasty," "Neat Neat Neat," and "Smash It Up." The venue was agreeably full, but not so much that you couldn't pogo without landing on someone else's foot.
The Damned have persisted, in large part, because of their relationship with their fans. While their contemporaries screamed, Vanian crooned, with Sensible's jaunty beret and golf pants standing in self-deprecating contrast to punk's "acceptable" wardrobe (conformist in its own way). Where other bands might gob in your face, the Damned would rather give you a wink, as if to say, "We're still having fun, yeah?" They validated the loyalty of their old fans, and hopefully convinced the new ones to buy their music instead of downloading it. All told, a Damned fine show.
Personal Bias: The Damned were always my favorite of the first wave of British punk, and seeing them live finally allowed me to check off one of my lifelong musical bucket-list items.
The Crowd: Teenage dirtbags and middle-age crazies.
Overheard In the Crowd: "I want a damned T-SHIRT!" (they sold out of Damned t-shirts)
Random Notebook Dump: "That guy looks like he's cosplaying Don Calfa from Return of the Living Dead."
I Just Can’t Be Happy Today
Alone Again Or (Love cover)
Machine Gun Etiquette
Street of Dreams
Eloise (Paul Ryan cover)
Stranger on the Town
Plan 9 Channel 7
Wait for the Blackout
The History of the World (Part 1)
Neat Neat Neat
Jet Boy, Jet Girl (Elton Motello cover)
Smash It Up
Born to Kill