16 April 2017

Blondie & Cyndi Lauper

Blondie & Cyndi Lauper
Horncastle Arena, Christchurch
15 April 2017

It's always been my ambition to see Blondie live - after all, Debbie Harry was, for quite a few years, simply one of the coolest people on the planet, and collectively the band produced singles and albums that were amongst the best of the vibrant late-'70s and early '80s music scene. So when an Easter break in Lyttelton coincided with a tour announcement for the Horncastle Arena, and with no Wellington gig on the horizon, there was only one possible outcome: a gig ticket simply had to be acquired. As it turned out, the gig was a double billing with '80s pop veteran Cyndi Lauper, whose 1983 album She's So Unusual remains a favourite.

The Canterbury crowd was a mix of a few boisterous women in their 30s and 40s dressed as Lauper-alikes, plus a great majority of dourly-attired middle-aged gig-goers. Confounding my expectations, the first act in the double-billing was Blondie. This came as a surprise because I had presumed Blondie were far and away more popular in New Zealand than Lauper. But it turns out I know nothing, with Blondie enjoying eight top 40 charting singles in New Zealand to Lauper's 12. Perhaps the answer came in the relative ages and energy levels of the performers: Debbie Harry is a stately 71 while Lauper is a more sprightly and nimble 63. In any case, Blondie's vintage didn't hinder the band's performance. The three original members, Harry, guitarist Chris Stein and drummer Clem Burke have a combined age of 199 and have been delivering these era-defining pop gems for decades, so their performance skills are mature like a refined wine. 

There’s no setlist posted online for this half of the gig, but there is for the Auckland Vector Arena performance two days later, and this seems consistent with other recent Blondie gigs. Interspersed with electrifying new wave pop hits of yore like One Way Or Another and Hanging on the Telephone, Blondie introduced new material written with collaborators Johnny Marr and Charli XCX, and in a perfect alignment of musical rebellion they mated the groundbreaking cadences of Rapture with the fuck-you outburst of the fellow New Yorkers the Beastie Boys’ Fight For Your Right To Party.

Debbie Harry’s performance was solid, if not touching the highest vocal ranges - but in any case vocal gymnastics was never her style. New material including tracks from the imminent album Pollinator - it’s about the plight of the honey bee, apparently - were perfectly agreeable, but it was the legendary singles performed by the original bandmembers that the audience had come to see. It was an absolute thrill to hear Chris Stein’s guitar on a raucous Atomic, Clem Burke drumming up a storm on a booming Heart of Glass, and Debbie Harry’s iconic rapping on Rapture. Harry reminded the audience that their last gig in the city was the day before the 2011 earthquake, and congratulated Cantabrians on their spirited recovery since then.

After the 75-minute Blondie set and a lengthy stage turnover it was time for Cyndi Lauper’s first New Zealand gig (I think). Her career has been bolstered in the US by the success of her Broadway musical adaptation of the 2005 film Kinky Boots, but in New Zealand Lauper’s fame rests securely on the success of her 1983 album She’s So Unusual, which for a time saw Lauper rivalling Madonna for zesty female solo artist world domination. Concerns were initially raised by the western-themed stage backdrop and opening with a Wanda Jackson cover, Funnel of Love - and indeed Lauper did reveal that like many US artists, she had gone a bit country. Nevertheless, this and the Patsy Cline and Skeeter Davis covers didn’t undermine the pop focus of the evening, because ‘80s hit singles were prudently strewn through the setlist, commencing with the killer combo of She Bop and I Drove All Night directly after the opener. Throughout, Lauper entertained the crowd with her marvelous New York accent and a series of rambling anecdotes that didn't amount to much, but which added to the whimsical atmosphere. 

On She Bop, Debbie Harry emerged from stage left to sing guest vocals, with Lauper having done the same on an earlier non-canonical Blondie number. Entertainingly, Harry relied on a bright white sheet of A4 with printed lyrics to bluff her way through a song she clearly didn’t know well - but admittedly the chorus (‘She bop, he bop and we bop, I bop, you bop and they bop’) is rather like a Latin grammar lesson.

After the first encore of the peerless Time After Time and a nicely disguised intro to a mammoth version of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Lauper returned for a solo second encore of True Colours. The Canterbury crowd emerged into the clear autumn evening, having been treated to an excellent night of veteran pop professionals.
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