There are few surviving artists who emerged during the late 1970s UK punk rock explosion who can still pack a house full of rabid fans. As lead singer and co-songwriter of the pop-punk powerhouse Generation X, Billy Idol achieved instant fame and recognition for his spiky blond hair, his onstage charisma and his photogenic poses. Often accused of being the pin-up model of the punk movement, Billy has never let his critics and detractors derail his mission.
Now, nearly 40 years after that musical phenomenon broke out on the other side of the pond, Idol is still going strong and continuing to do what he does best. Nearing his 60th birthday, Idol's platinum blonde coif is more dishwater blonde with significant roots showing through. He's visibly aged and he doesn't move as quickly and as furiously as he used to; but make no mistake about it, he's in the best shape of his life and the musical fire and fever that's always burned brightly inside of him hasn't waned one bit. His sometimes gruff, sometimes sensual vocals still sound great and convincing.
A near-sell out crowd that consisted of bikers, yuppies, youthful '80s nostalgiacs, scantily clad women and some diehards filled Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall last Thursday night to revel in the onstage fireworks Idol is known to ignite. Supporting his latest release, 2014's lukewarm Kings & Queens of The Underground, Billy and his five-piece band (including longtime sidekick, guitar wizard Steve Stevens) took the darkened stage just after 9 and barreled through a 100-minute set that included plenty of highlights and lots of hits.
Opening with "Postcards From the Past," the lead single from his current album, Idol, clad in black leather jacket and black leather-patched pants, looked refreshed and eager to please. As the diverse crowd leaped to its feet, Billy lapped up every moment in the spotlight and in turn flashed plenty of smiles and trademark sneers.
While the four selections off his the new LP went over well (and, admittedly, sounded more lively and inspired than the recorded versions do), it was the hits that drove the excitable crowd over the edge.
"Cradle of Love" and the Generation X track that served as a breakthrough hit during his solo tenure, "Dancing With Myself," were unleashed early in the set and pleased the voracious crowd immensely. Stevens, sporting a kimono-like top and skin tight orange bell bottoms, engaged in some Pete Townshend-like windmill moves near the lip of the stage and drew some pretty hearty applause in doing so.
Part of the performance was plagued by a somewhat muddy and uneven mix, but the crowd didn't mind; to the ones singing and bopping and swaying to the music, not much else seemed to matter.
A personal highlight came with his nod to former songwriting partner, Generation X bassist Tony James, in punk anthem "Ready Steady Go." "This was the first song I wrote with Tony James in 1976!" Idol announced exuberantly before launching into a searing rendition of the forgotten classic.
Strutting from stage left to stage right and, at times, perching at a small center-stage pedestal, Billy did his best to engage with the adoring crowd. Whether suggestively flirting with females in the front row or distributing guitar picks, set lists, drum sticks or autographed paper plates, Idol's aim was obviously to please.
As expected, the heavy hitters were saved for last and drew the heartiest responses of the night. The main set-closing "Rebel Yell" became a passionate sing-along and featured some pretty wicked guitar work from Stevens, as did the encore's acoustic intro to "White Wedding." As Stevens and Idol — who interact pretty regularly while onstage together — shared a single spotlight, Steve furiously strummed as Billy belted the familiar "Hey little sister..." lines, which kicked off yet another spirited audience sing-along. Soon, the rest of the band joined, Stevens strapped on a gorgeous sparkly electric guitar, and a more familiar, super-charged version of the song filled the room in grand (and loud) fashion.
Inevitably, Idol's famous cover of the 1968 Tommy James bubblegum classic "Mony Mony" was the night's final number. One of the biggest hits of his solo career, the innocent, innocuous song has evolved into a drawn out, profanity-laced jock rock anthem that's become a favorite for those who would have jumped at the chance to kick my ass in high school for being an Idol fanatic. While the song still remains a fun, catchy number, it's lost most of its charm in its current heavy-handed reading. I'd gladly have cut the length in half and substituted another short, fast burner in it's place.
Billy Idol's still got it. The natural born showman knows what to do to drive his fans crazy and make them want more, more, more. However, he'd benefit greatly by an overhaul of the live set list and better use of his precious onstage moments.
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