History says odd billings, cool as they look on the theater marquee, just don’t work in the concert realm. Some edgier pairings: The Monkees at their teenybopper peak brought along Jimi Hendrix as an opener; promoter Bill Graham tried introducing fans of then-faddish Led Zeppelin to beloved big-band jazzer Woody Herman at Fillmore East in 1969; and the Replacements were hired to support a 1989 tour for Tom Petty, a pairing that doesn’t seem nearly as weird now as it was at the time. These alliances shared more than just edginess: They were all disasters, at least for the openers and their fans. (The “Mats” played 19 minutes at Petty’s Merriweather Post Pavilion stop before Paul Westerberg walked offstage and didn’t return.)
Throw Wolf Trap’s unquestionably bold Thursday night bill, with fringy crooner Cat Power warming up for vintage mainstream bozo rocker Billy Idol, onto this historical scrap heap. The night provided more proof that pop concertgoers don’t care to be introduced to something completely different. They go to be entertained. They want the hits.
When Cat Power, fronted by serial weirdo Chan Marshall, hit the stage, she played in front of an amphitheater that was about three-fourths empty. And only a smattering of the folks in their seats acted as if they cared. Marshall, a famously touchy artist whose portfolio is full of no-shows and mid-show meltdowns, faced the emptiness and apathy with all the professionalism she’s not known for.
Sporting an Idol-like short, bleached-blond coif, Marshall concentrated mostly on material from her most recent album, “Sun,” singing in a breathy and bassy voice that recalled Nina Simone. During “Cherokee,” she wailed lines such as “Never knew shame like this!” as if performing before a full house there just to see her. Halfway through the set-closing “Ruin,” she started waving bye-bye to the crowd and cleaning up the floor around her microphone, OCD-style. She personally ripped several copies of the set lists off the stage and handed them out to fans up front who had paid attention before she walked off, giving her night an odd, sweet ending. In an apparent acknowledgment that there would be no crossover between Idol fans and hers, her staff removed all the Cat Power products from the Wolf Trap merchandise booth in time for the closing set.
The grandstands were full when Idol went on, and early in his performance he gave the fans what they came for: “Dancing With Myself,” the irresistible single that introduced him to America in the early 1980s, was among the first offerings. It’s a wonderful song, but hearing it all these years later it’s amazing to think that Idol was thought of as “punk” at the onset of his stateside fame.
Idol, 57, was constantly directing the spotlight to his longtime bandmate, the guitar wizard Steve Stevens, who at various points performed solos with his teeth, behind his back and while duck-walking across the stage. And Idol eventually got around to the unapologetically mindless and well-crafted rock tunes that kept his career going – “White Wedding” and “Rebel Yell.”
But before getting those classics out of the way, he spent an unwise amount of time reminding everybody that back in MTV’s day he also put out power ballads. His voice, however, has much less husk than it once did, and the slow stuff, including “Eyes Without a Face” and “Flesh for Fantasy,” has aged far less impressively than Idol himself has physically – he changed shirts and jackets throughout the 90-plus-minute set but always showed a lot of very toned abdomen. And with each croon, Idol forced everybody to recall just how crucial the video component was to the commercial success of his music.
McKenna is a freelance writer.