Monday, March 26, 2007

Joan Jett Rocks Staten Island

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
Saturday March 24, 2007
College of Staten Island Center for the Arts

Joan Jett may be the nicest punk of all time. Despite the tattoos, leather clothing, Goth eye makeup and aggressive poses, there is an inherent warmth and positivity to her raspy, Lawng Island-tinged vocals, one of the signature, immediately recognizable voices in rock music. She always introduces the band as "The Blackhearts" (not, "Joan Jett and ..."), and her between-songs patter, a mix of encouraging and praising her fans, left her sounding as much like a tough-chick cheerleader as the leader of one of the longest-lasting punk rock bands around.

The setting for her sold-out Saturday show at the College of Staten Island Center for the Arts aptly set off this contradiction, as she rocked the house, even though the house wasn't a dingy club, but an upholstered-seat-filled, college auditorium more appropriate for a student production of "Fiddler on the Roof."

At 48, Jett has settled into a comfortable groove. In her leather pants and midriff-bearing tank top, she looks to be in fighting shape (although, when you see her live, you are reminded at how small she really is), and, as she repeatedly told the crowd, her goal was to put on a fun show that kept the audience singing and dancing throughout. She succeeded, despite fighting a flu bug that sent her into coughing fits several times between songs. Leading her band through a 70-minute, 17-song set, Jett showed that few can challenge her ability to put on a great, garagey rock show.

As the introductory music came to a close, Jett wasted no time announcing her presence with authority (as Nuke Laloosh told Crash Davis in "Bull Durham"), launching into her signature anthem, "Bad Reputation," from her debut solo album of the same title. A blend of the angry, driving guitars of 1970's punk rock and Jett's upbeat, "be proud to be yourself" lyrics, "Bad Reputation" had the 850 spectators up and moving. The demographic of Jett's fans is like no act I have ever seen, with young girls in stripper bustiers and belly shirts, and middle-aged men and women who looked like they wandered in from a Neil Diamond concert, dancing side-by-side, surrounded by old-school punks, middle-aged women trying to recapture their youth through questionable clothing choices and music geeks.

The current version of the Blackhearts -- drummer Thommy Price, guitarist Dougie Needles and bassist Enzo Penizzotto -- was comfortable and tight, avoiding speeding up songs like too many bands do live, and keeping the riffs coming, with Jett and Needles trading off lead lines and Price providing the signature pounding on songs like "Do You Wanna Touch Me" and "I Love Rock and Roll." Kenny Laguna, Jett's longtime producer and friend, stood tucked out of the way in the back corner of the stage, providing backing vocals and keyboards. It looked a bit odd, but his placement did make sense. Needles and Penizzotto cut the figures of classic punk rockers, tall and thin, with their spiked hair, black clothing and chain wallet holders, and their guitars slung low with their legs spread wide. Laguna, on the other hand, looked like your Great Uncle Morty in the card room at Del Boca Vista telling his poker buddies how he spent a summer selling T-shirts for the Jefferson Airplane.

The show opened with a burst of adrenaline. The band followed "Bad Reputation" with Jett's hit from her Runaways days "Cherry Bomb," the Bruce Springsteen-penned theme song to Jett's 1987 movie "Light of Day," and her cover of Gary Glitter's "Do You Wanna Touch Me," featuring the audience loudly providing the "yeah, oh yeah" refrain. The four songs ran into each other with barely a break in-between, and the crowd was up, moving and screaming throughout. It felt like the most noise the staid auditorium had seen in a while.

The band then segued into a section of the show largely consisting of songs from their 2006 release "Sinner." "Change the World," and "Five" were driving, old-school punk anthems that served as a reminder that Jett was churning out radio-friendly punk before Green Day and The Offspring arrived on the scene. Jett's strong and familiar voice and the catchiness of the melodies allowed the songs to fit seamlessly into the set with her classic hits.

Other selections from the new album reached for more lyrical depth. The introspective "Naked" and political commentary "Riddles" were strong, mid-tempo songs in the classic rock style. The sexually adventurous "Fetish," with its explicit lyrics and angry guitars, was engaging and a bit dark. "Androgynous" was light, musically anyway, sounding, as my wife observed, like a lost Schoolhouse Rock cut, which was a bit odd, given the subject matter of the song.

Tucked into the run of cuts from "Sinner" was the second best cover I've every heard of "Love Is All Around," the theme song to the "Mary Tyler Moore Show," which Jett recorded for promotional spots for the WNBA. The version by Minneapolis punk rockers Husker Du is my favorite, but Jett does a nice job on it, as well.

The familiar drum-roll intro to "I Love Rock and Roll" ushered in the final section of the set, kicking off a run of hits to finish out the show. Jett's mega-hit, which spent eight weeks on top of the Billboard singles chart, represented the only time during the night that the band did not seem especially inspired. It is very interesting to me how bands have such a love-hate relationship with their biggest hits, and instead of making the song the centerpiece of the set, Jett pretty much buried it, treating it more like an appetizer than a main course.

She followed up with an inspired take on the Tommy James and the Shondells classic "Crimson and Clover," adding the wah-wah effect to the concluding run of the chorus that appears on the James version but not on Jett's recording on the "I Love Rock and Roll" album. The band concluded the main part of the set with an energetic "I Hate Myself For Loving You." Like the opening of the show, the three-song run to end the set came rapid-fire, with the capacity crowd singing and dancing along.

The band began the encore with "A.C.D.C." from "Sinner," an exuberant rave-up with nearly-shouted vocals, an infectious melody, a sing-along chorus and enough false endings to make James Brown proud. Jett capped the night with her cover of Sly Stone's "Everyday People."

It always struck me as funny that Jett's signature anthem is called "Bad Reputation," given that you would be hard-pressed to find someone to say something bad about her. But her ability to be unapologetically real and raw, no matter how nice she is, leaves no doubt that she has every right to take her place in the pantheon of punk rock. The eclectic crowd that made the trek to Staten Island to see one of rock's jewels left happy and satisfied, just like Jett would want them to.

Set List:
Bad Reputation
Cherry Bomb
Light of Day
Do You Wanna Touch Me
Change the World
Love Is Pain
Love Is All Around
I Love Rock and Roll
Crimson and Clover
I Hate Myself for Loving You
Everyday People