House of Blues
October 6, 2015
We could all learn a lot from Billy Idol. Our common vocabulary is now peppered with words that describe what happens when face-to-face communication collides head-on with smartphone overuse. Nobody lives in the moment anymore, people will tell you. All we do is stare at a screen, transcribing our lives to social media instead of living them.
Billy Idol, who will be 60 next month(!), exists as a living and breathing antidote to this method of thinking. The way he clenches his fist in concert, wrist turned just the slightest degree toward him, or even shakes a tambourine brings on an impish gleam in his eye that is about the closest thing to pure happiness I’ve seen lately. In a self-absorbed society, Idol positively glows with the self-satisfaction of giving his all to thoroughly rock his crowd.
This is not especially easy to do when an outside event is doing all it can to intrude; Tuesday, it was the AL Wild Card playoff game between the Astros and the New York Yankees. House of Blues had been showing the game with the sound off (and Zeppelin on the PA) until NYC trad-rock duo the London Souls came out to warm up the crowd, which serendipitously was with a Zeppelinesque melange of glam, rockabilly and overall guitar squall. After Idol came out, it's a mark of his considerable gifts as an entertainer that he largely kept the crowd from compulsively checking their phones, even as the game wore into the late innings. When news that Houston would advance to meet the Kansas City Royals arrived literally seconds before “Rebel Yell,” it resulted in a moment of pure release so potent the FDA probably should have been notified.
Alongside formative songs (Generation X’s “Ready, Steady, Go”) and lesser-known gems (“Blue Highway”), Idol's 80-minute set included four cuts from his latest album (and first since 2005), last year’s Kings and Queens of the Underground. None of them could hope to replace “Rebel Yell,” but that’s beside the point — they worked quite well within the context of the show and, unlike some other Houston crowds, this one did not turn on the headliner or tune out during the new stuff. Both sleek, electronica-touched opener “Postcards From the Past” and effects-heavy, oddly Who-like “Save Me Now” addressed meeting the present head-on as opposed to wallowing in nostalgia.
However slight the differences from Idol’s vintage work may have been, it was reassuring to see that he’s still interested in continuing to grow as an artist. Judging by the grin on his face as he shook a tambourine during “Blue Highway," he’s definitely interested in continuing to have fun: Following the more “subdued” portion of the evening that consisted of “Sweet Sixteen” and “Eyes Without a Face,” the galloping pace of “Whiskey and Pills” set the table for the home stretch as Idol tossed a bunch of Frisbees to the crowd.
(Aside: Would it be wrong to wish for Idol to tour smaller venues at some point on a “Storytellers”-type tour? The tale he told introducing “Sweet Sixteen” is too long to get into here, but Idol is quite the raconteur.)
With the key supporting role in Idol’s passion play, as always, was his longtime guitarist, who spent so much time as the center of attention that the concert could have been subtitled The Steve Stevens Show. Looking an awful lot like the Cure’s Robert Smith, Stevens obliged the crowd with all the classic guitar-hero moves: playing with his teeth (“Cradle of Love”), behind the back (“Dancing With Myself,” “Blue Highway”) and flaunting the cigarette between his teeth (many times). Stevens milked one of the perennial highlights of any Idol concert, the heavy-metal break halfway into “Eyes Without a Face,” for everything it was worth. He also poured on the classical technique a few times, climaxing with a cadenza after “Eyes Without a Face” that not only lasted long enough for Idol to head offstage for a Powerbar (or whatever), but lasted so long Stevens had time to peel off a little “Over the Hills and Far Away” and the tiniest bit of “Stairway to Heaven.”
To sum up, if an alien beamed down to Earth and asked to be taken to a pure rock and roll show absent any runaway aggression or ill will, this would have been it. After the exquisite crescendo that is “Mony Mony” brought the evening to a close, a woman by the door noticed my Rolling Stones T-shirt and said, “Mick Jagger ain’t got nothin’ on him.” I’m at a loss for any higher praise than that.
If you go back through Idol’s set list, everything you need to enrich and simplify your life is already there, really. It’s easy to deceive, easy to tease, but hard to get release. Let’s sink another drink. The cradle of love don’t rock easy. See and feel my sex attack. There’s nothing to lose, and nothing to prove. It’s a nice day to start again.
Personal Bias: Dancing with myself.
The Crowd: Been around the block a few times, some a few more than others.
Overheard In the Crowd: “Take the jacket off!”
Random Notebook Dump: Shout-out to whoever played some Sisters of Mercy before Idol came out.
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Postcards From the Past
Cradle of Love
Can’t Break Me Down
Dancing With Myself
Flesh For Fantasy
Save Me Now
Ready, Steady, Go
Eyes Without a Face
Whiskey and Pills