Blondie is a band that has always occupied its own niche. From their earliest days at CBGB on Manhattan’s Bowery, they were equal parts pop and punk. They were champions of the gritty downtown ethos more for their sardonic take on “entertainment” than for the channeled outrage their punk peers offered as riposte to rock’s previously boring ’70s. They were a curiously shiny showbiz phenomenon on the early club scene, something apart from the fun nihilism of The Ramones or the artsy angst of the Talking Heads.
For those who haven’t closely tracked the band’s progress (and occasional backslides) through several feud-ridden personnel changes, it may have been surprising to find Blondie 2017 is more of a hard-charging guitar band than the ripped-T-shirt artistes they began as.
That puts them right on the money for a summer tour focused on rock’s mid-size `shed’s alongside Garbage, who similarly rely on an edgily charismatic front person in Shirley Manson, but like the newer Blondie can also send the two-guitar jams pealing forth. By contrast to most of the dates on the two bands’ Rage & Rapture tour, instead of former X stalwarts John Doe and Exene Cervenka the Manson-Harry mutual admiration society expanded this night to include a half-hour opening set from Sky Ferreira. She played six of her own power ballads of tangled romance with verve and commitment but perhaps scored best with a cover of Aimee Mann’s 1985 hit with ‘Til Tuesday “Voices Carry.”
It took a moment to adjust from the opener’s garage-rock ethos to the rather grander staging of Garbage in their 50-minute, 14-song set, with Manson sashaying assuredly about the sprawling stage in a spangled cape-like number that often parted strategically to reveal fishnet stockings. Her optic-crimson/orange hair, contrasting green eye makeup and knowing grins seemed to intentionally recall Ziggy-era Bowie. “If you love Garbage you know that we love to go dark,” Manson shared, and the late-set pairing of their hits “Stupid Girl” with “Only Happy When It Rains” clearly satisfied a full house.
Opening with “One Way or Another,” with the rather affluent crowd a couple goblets of chardonnay into their evening, resulted in immediate widespread dancing, which carried through “Hanging on the Telephone.” Harry, who did those two songs wearing an elaborate bee mask (the tour is themed to their album Pollinator), also wore a long-tailed robe with block letters instructing “STOP FUCKING THE PLANET” and species-checked “our beautiful friends the bees.” She doffed mask and robe to emerge in shades and her own sparkly top, and moved with energy, charm and sporadic zest through a 13-song, 70-minute set. Harry seemed to proffer accessibility rather than the sometimes-sullen Garbo vibe of earlier days; she did jape about whether we’d want to “get in a phone booth with me,” adding “if you can find one.”
True enough — it’s been almost four decades since the classic 1978 album Parallel Lines, and when Rolling Stone wrote about her “utter aplomb” on the previous year’s debut album, it found her “possessor of a bombshell zombie’s voice that can dreamily seductive and woodenly Mansonite within the same song.” (To be sure the reference was to Charlie Manson and not budding Blondie fan Shirley, then age 11.)
One of two newer official Blondies is keyboardist (and songwriting contributor) Matt Katz-Bohen, who at points (as on another hit, “Call Me”) moved stage front to strap on a keytar and trigger some astringent instrumental breaks as he wore a T-shirt stating, “The Future Is Female.”
With bright, quivering beads winking relentlessly from the backdrop and washes of light splashing about, the stage at moments almost recalled a scene from the little-loved HBO series Vinyl, but when guitarist/founder/amiable Harry ex Chris Stein undertook fleet-finger-picking runs (as on the new “Fun”) you could see how well he enjoys trading licks with another new member guitarist Tommy Kessler — most notably on a fierce, anthemic reading of “Atomic” that determinedly sped up towards the end as Kessler, wearing jeans, sleeveless shirt and attitude like some rockabilly scruff, owned the stage he circumnavigated, shredding all the while. On that song and during moments where he simply hoisted up on his stool and pounded out martial intros and drum breaks, Clem Burke (he of the pleasingly cocky grin in his Beatles T-shirt) demonstrated once again that he’s one of the great power drummers in the game.
Harry, Manson and, less explicitly but just as compellingly, Ferreira steadily made a case that the future may indeed be female. Probably no amount of mansplaining could parse where the performances of these three overlap with the feminism that’s seemingly energized by the goings-on in Washington, but all three epitomized a kind of sass and surety that indeed found a way to blend rage and rapture in a congenial package. “We have waited 22 years to come here,” noted Manson, adding that they were most pleased to be “breaking our hymen” with “our heroes.”
It was that kind of night — easy bonhomie, a feathery (and often bud-laced) breeze cooling all after a hot spell and a sense of fandom repaid. Though Harry, who seemed to have brief moments of distraction earlier, came out for an encore seeming peeved at “a little discrepancy” because the venue had set a time limit, she brought passion to the elegiac “Union City Blues” and following the pummeling Burke into “Dreaming.” She properly delivered that archetypal Blondie song as a paean it is to the early days finding a path to love and stardom with Stein. When a band has a storytelling, inspirational closer like “Dreaming,” the entire, long-lived enterprise is elevated — and that was certainly the case at the Bowl on Sunday.