There can be something faintly melancholy about a once vital rocker coming back around to play his biggest hits, especially when the passage of time has been unkind to voice or catalog. Which is why it’s a pleasure to report there was nothing sad about the vibrant Billy Idol show at the Orpheum Theatre Saturday night.
The lip still sneers, the fist still pumps, the platinum blond dye job is still sculpted into tiny spikes, and the songs sounded great. Not smirky, guilty pleasure “Oh, weren’t we silly in the ’80s!” great or (only) nostalgically great, but just plain great.
It helps immensely that Idol was in terrific shape both physically and vocally, his backing quintet was running hot — particularly longtime foil, lead guitarist Steve Stevens — and the old songs have aged well. The newer ones, from his recent release “Kings & Queens of the Underground” also came off much better, and brawnier, live in concert and most cheering of all, Idol and his band seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as the crowd was.
Were there a couple of cringeworthy moments or times when Idol, 59, had to take some of the high notes of yore into a lower register? Sure, but the balance of the hour and 50-minute performance was a reminder that the onetime Brit punk-turned-music-video darling had a real gift for combining rock heat, dance beats, and pop sweets into something that worked as well in the golden era of MTV as it does onstage today.
Idol and Stevens remain a dynamic duo, playfully spurring each other on as they worked their way through percolating oldies like “Cradle of Love,” “Dancing With Myself,” “Rebel Yell,” and “White Wedding,” the last of which began acoustically in the encore before amping up to full power.
At one point Idol complimented Stevens — who took center stage for a five-minute solo near the show’s end — and the guitarist joked he was a “dinosaur.” But Idol wouldn’t let that stand, stopping for a moment and sincerely observing “You still play great, mate, and that’s all that counts.” It was a sweet moment between longtime friends that felt unscripted.
A few expected tunes were missing from the set list, including “Hot in the City” and the Generation X favorite “Kiss Me Deadly,” but new tunes like the fidgety riffer “Whiskey and Pills” and “Can’t Break Me Down” kept the fans cheering and clapping in their seats as opposed to spurring a mass exodus beer break.
Idol was never going to be in the running for vocal technician awards, it wasn’t his style, but his snarl, bark, and croon remain in good enough shape to get the job done on songs like “Flesh for Fantasy” and “Eyes Without a Face.” And he gets points for not being the kind of vintage rocker who simply directs his microphone to the audience and lets them do his job.
The whole enterprise came to a close with a rollicking, extended guitar army attack on his hit cover of Tommy James and the Shondells’ irresistible sing along “Mony Mony.”
Simpatico Oklahoma modern rockers Broncho ably handled warm-up duties.