The biggest-selling, most heavily bleached pop music star to hit the Turf Club since Lady Gaga stopped in for a drink five years ago, ‘80s pseudo-punk Billy Idol rolled into St. Paul’s rockiest watering hole Monday night for a promotional gig that blurred the lines between hipster cool, punk cred and guilty-pleasure schmaltz.
Playing an all-acoustic set with only guitarist Steve Stevens for accompaniment, the snarly faced, spiky-haired British rocker was booked into the 300-capacity venue as part of a 10-day series of events marking 89.3 the Current’s 10th anniversary celebrations. The station’s flagship jockey Mary Lucia showed her unique appreciation for Idol as she introduced him to the stage.
“He has lived nine lives … and has probably already shagged 10 times today,” Lucia cracked.
Sporting a black T-shirt by the Midwest noise-punk trio Shellac and looking fit enough to front his own wild punk band, the 59-year-old singer smiled often and didn’t seem fazed to be playing an small, old club instead of the sports arenas he once filled. He opened with a full-throated version of his 1982 hit “White Wedding” and ended with an audience-accompanied “Rebel Yell.” In between, he dropped in the less enduring but still crowd-pleasing hits “Eyes Without a Face,” “Sweet Sixteen” and “To Be a Lover” along with “Kiss Me Deadly,” a song by his pre-hitmaking band Generation X.
“This acoustic stuff is hard work,” Idol joked to Stevens after bellowing hard to rock up “To Be a Lover” near the end. “Let’s go back to electric tomorrow.”
He apparently wasn’t kidding: The final tally only came to six songs clocking in at 30 minutes total, for a show that cost $25 and probably a Minnesota Public Radio membership to get in (local openers Little Man and Tropical Depression certainly provided more bang for the buck, though). He played nothing off his new record, “Kings & Queens of the Underground,” ostensibly the reason he agreed to the gig. He also denied the audience’s cheers for an encore, which were so prevalent Lucia came back out to cut everyone off. “He has to catch a plane,” she claimed.
Monday’s show was a very questionable booking on the part of the supposedly underground-oriented, alternative-minded, publicly subsidized 89.3 staff. For those too young (or old?) to remember, Idol was to punk in the '80s what Kid Rock was to rap in the '00s, and he still gets heavy airplay on narrow-niched corporate FM stations. The Current announced the gig under the banner of Lucia’s purisitic throwback show “Rock and Roll Radio” but should have billed it among her “No Apologies” selections of cheeseball pop singers and has-been artists.
Aside from the brevity, though, the show wasn’t an embarrassment for Idol himself. His voice -- as mumbly and gravely rock ‘n’ roll voices go -- was still in as fine of shape as his physical appearance. The fans who flocked the stage for autographs were clearly smitten by his mere presence. And the acoustic format worked surprisingly OK, except for "Eyes Without a Face" coming off as melodramatic as a Mexican soap-opera. You have to give the guy credit: He’d be a good bet for a local casino to book his next time through our area.