East Coast punk met West Coast punk at the Rapids Theatre in Niagara Falls on Friday, as New York diehards Blondie and Los Angeles stalwarts X joined forces before an adoring throng. Both bands represent the new wave avant garde of the late ’70s and ’80s, and both have weathered the ravages of time rather well.
On paper, the double bill made perfect sense. Both bands are fronted by iconic female vocalists – Blondie by the buoyant and sassy Deborah Harry, X by the mildly sinister Exene Cervenka. And both bands represent American punk rock’s first true heyday. But the similarities end there. As Friday’s show reminded us, Blondie’s take on punk was and is much more pop-oriented, while X still represents the raw and visceral underground. Blondie had hits; X had credibility, then and now.
Which is not to take anything away from Blondie, the band that emerged from the ’70s CBGB-based NYC scene to become the first among its peer group to achieve mainstream success. Today, the band boasts three of its founding members, in the form of Harry, guitarist Chris Stein and drummer Clem Burke. With relatively new blood pumping via the contributions of guitarist Tommy Kessler, keyboardist/vocalist Matt Katz-Bohen, and bassist Leigh Foxx, Blondie still boasts plenty of instrumental muscle.
But one’s attention tends to focus on Harry, who, even in her late 60s, still sings with authority and moves easily between a throaty purr and a Ronnie Spector-esque upper range. Dressed in a bizarre assemblage that suggested some sort of wizard’s apprentice in drag – flowing black robe, pointed black hat, long bleached-blonde wig, dark sunglasses – Harry strutted about the Rapids Theatre stage as if she owned the place. By the set’s second tune, she did.
Fresh from a European tour, Blondie was uber-tight and in fighting form on Friday. The band’s biggest hits are well behind it, most coming in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but Blondie still makes vibrant new music – the 2011 release “Panic of Girls” presented a band still able to comfortably and convincingly assimilate various contemporary styles into its pop core. Songs from that album, and the forthcoming “Ghosts of Download” release, peppered Friday’s set. The strongest among these new tunes was “A Rose By Any Name,” the first single from “Ghost of Download.” A fusion of funk, punk and new wave stylings, the song provided Harry with an ample space in which to flex her agile voice. Another highlight was the gorgeous, elegiac and Ronettes-inspired “Maria,” from the group’s late ’90s comeback album “No Exit,” its reunion effort following a lengthy hiatus. This was classic Blondie – sultry verses throbbing with a new wave pulse giving way to an explosive pop chorus with a vocal melody that reaches for the heavens. Harry nailed the difficult tune, even if the band appeared to have lowered the key in order to accommodate.
Of course, as strong as this newer material was, the mostly full Rapids Theatre welcomed the classics with the most vigor. Blondie didn’t skimp on these, either. We got the punk snarl of “One Way Or Another,” the pop-ska of “The Tide Is High,” the edgy angst-pop of “Hanging On the Telephone,” the rap-funk-pop fusion of “Rapture,” and of course, the disco-punk gem “Heart of Glass,” Blondie’s breakthrough hit. It was elegant, classy, polished, but raw enough to satisfy the more punk-leaning elements of the crowd. A tip of the hat should be offered to drummer Burke in particular, whose performance was deliciously bombastic throughout.
X opened with a gloriously rough-edged set that ably represented the rockabilly/new wave/garage rock hybrid that fueled Los Angeles punk and stood it in stark contrast to the more “arty” pretenses of its New York City counterpart. X formed in 1977, and today, all four original members – vocalist Cervenka, bassist/vocalist John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom, and drummer D.J. Bonebrake – are still present and accounted for. Good lord, what a beautiful cacophony the band created within the Rapids Theatre, marrying its early rock ’n’ roll and rockabilly guitar figures to the sultry wail and moan of Cervenka’s singing, and the primal thud of the rhythm section. Interestingly, it was X far more so than any of the band’s New York counterparts, that seemed to have the biggest influence on the generation of punk rockers that emerged from Buffalo in the late ’80s, principal among them the Ramrods.
Highlights of the band’s set included the Doe-led “The Hungry Wolf,” a torrid “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene,” and the set-closing interpretation of the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen.”