Deborah Harry kicked off her Necessary Evil tour on Irving Plaza, the gateway to the East Village. Nowhere will you find a more voracious audience for Deborah Harry than in this quickly gentrifying New York City neighborhood. This is her home turf. This is where we’d probably find her if she’d never met Chris Stein and formed new wave pioneers Blondie more than 30 years ago. No wonder fans started lining up outside the newly christened Fillmore as many as four hours before Harry stepped onstage.
The occasion for the tour is a new solo album on the indie Eleven Seven label. Necessary Evil is her fifth (and best) album without the other members of Blondie. It’s a sonically lean effort, with guitar riffs and synth blips aplenty provided by the Super Buddha production team (a.k.a. Charles Nieland and Barb Morrison). The full gamut of Harry’s muses are present and accounted for—rap, punk, rock, pop ballads, jazz—and guests include Chris Stein, Roy Nathanson (of the Jazz Passengers), and Guy Furrow (of the Toilet Boys).
At a quarter to ten, Harry sauntered out from the wings, emerging with her four-piece band to the pre-recorded tribal-cum-rock beat of “Jen Jen” (an instrumental track on Necessary Evil). She was dressed in a funky, all-black ensemble that rendered her short blond mop even more luminescent. (We should all be so lucky to achieve the timeless glow emanating from Harry’s smiling visage at age 62.)
Her lithe frame grooved from side to side, whipping the crowd into a fever. Waiting to get inside the club and then enduring an interminable opening act made the appearance of Harry a near orgasmic moment for the assembled revelers. Once the band locked into position, Harry tore into “I Can See Clearly”, a driving dance tune from her last solo album, Debravation. More than half the packed house sang along to the “hoo-hoo-wah-hoo” hook, proving that at least some people bought that album (despite its seeming disappearance shortly after its release some fifteen years ago).
Harry’s between-song banter was minimal throughout the evening—she’s never been much for audience chitchat. Her introduction to the next song consisted simply of the words “title track”, meaning “Necessary Evil”. Watching the audience mime “oh yes/ oh nooo” indicated that the new solo album had probably been heard by more people at this point than the last. She soon reached back to KooKoo—which went gold in 1981—for “The Jam Was Moving”. The band’s minimal instrumentation suited the song’s angular funk, and Harry clearly enjoyed singing a song that she hadn’t brought to the stage in years.
“Two Times Blue”, the first single from Necessary Evil (currently in the Billboard Top 10 club play charts), elicited another enthusiastic response. Throughout the song, Harry’s voice careened to falsetto heights from sumptuous lows. “If I Had You” was less successful, not because of its vocalist, but, rather, due to the sound of overwhelming guitar and keyboards. They blared to the point of distraction during the power ballad’s chorus, leaving Harry’s voice to be lost.
Crimson red lights dressed the Rob Roth-designed stage backdrop on “French Kissin’ in the USA”, probably the most familiar of Harry’s solo sides to casual listeners. Soon after, those who never thought they’d hear the little-heard “Rain” (also from Debravation) were rewarded handsomely when the band launched into this hit that never was.
Speaking of hits, Harry treated the inevitable group of people who thought they were at a Blondie show to acoustic renditions of “The Tide Is High” and “Heart of Glass”. “That’s right, motherfuckers,” she uttered during the latter. Could she possibly have meant the horde of well-inebriated patrons who pushed towards the center of the crowd when they heard the words “Once I had a love…”?
Harry made it known in much of the press leading up to the tour that she wouldn’t be performing Blondie material. Even if it was something of a compromise, the crowd clearly loved hearing the songs that have soundtracked a million coming-of-age experiences. If anything, “Heart of Glass” made a nice transition. “That was written by Chris Stein,” she said (cue deafening applause at the mention of Blondie’s lead axe-man), “who also wrote this next song. It’s called ‘Lovelight’.” The sole tune from Harry’s Def, Dumbe & Blonde performed, the song fit perfectly into the set, and her rendition seemed to give the nearly 20-year-old track new life.
Harry brought out a special guest for the tune that followed. (No, it wasn’t Chris Stein.) Introduced only as “Nomi”, her guest rapped over “In the Heat of the Moment”, an ambient track from Necessary Evil that consists mostly of Harry crooning the title in various vocal styles. Unfortunately, Nomi’s mic wasn’t audible for the first 20 seconds or so, sucking some of the momentum out of the performance. Strangely, Nomi is nowhere to be found on the album version of the song, which seems like something of an oversight given her appearance with Harry. Me, I’d like to know more about Nomi—how Deborah Harry met her and why she was onstage. No such explanation was given.
Far better executed was “School for Scandal”, one of the best tracks on Necessary Evil. Harry’s guitarist (the “Irish Phantom”, as she calls him) prowled the stage, driving the song to the edges of hard rock while Harry spat out the lyrics. She introduced “Rush Rush” as a song that appeared in a “little film called Scarface.” This intro lent way to one of the band’s best moments—a deft performance of the song’s original Giorgio Moroder-produced synthesizer arrangement. The crowd went wild for “Rush Rush”, much to the delight of Harry, whose disarming smile during the song could win over the most cynical music critic. It seems like she should go solo more often.
While she clearly played a lot of winners, “Love You with a Vengeance” and “What Is Love” should be struck from the setlist and replaced with alternate songs from the new album (I vote for “Dirty and Deep” and “Deep End”, or maybe “Under Arrest” fromKooKoo and “Bike Boy” from Def, Dumbe & Blonde). Both tunes slowed the energy built by “School for Scandal” and “Rush Rush”. “What Is Love” suffered in particular, since Harry didn’t seem to have the lyrics memorized (to be fair, it was the first day of the tour).
The winning triptych of “Whiteout”, “You’re Too Hot”, and “Charm Alarm” (with special guest Guy Furrow) more than compensated for the minor imperfections of the preceding two performances. These were the definite keepers. Charles Nieland joined on guitar for “Whiteout”, a song that would be on the radio in a fair world, and Barb Morrison brought out her saxophone for “You’re Too Hot”. The latter was probably the most winning track of the evening for its sheer unconventionality. The complete lyrics are, “Don’t touch me/ You’re too hot.” What Harry did with those lyrics, however, is the mark of a true performer. Those six words were given a whole range of intonations—ecstasy, frustration, elation, fear, seduction, revulsion: desire in all its complexity.
“You’re Too Hot” somehow summarized the whole experience of the evening. Harry sang and shouted. She teased and taunted. She smiled and (playfully) grimaced. Her eyes alternately widened and narrowed. It was a full-on seduction, a mesmerizing performance.