With all the subtlety of a 1970s Elton John pounding out "Funeral for a Friend" in his favorite Donald Duck get-up, glamtastic throwbacks the Scissor Sisters kicked off a U.S. tour at the 9:30 club Tuesday, gaudily strutting that fine line between pure pop majesty and pure disco-era Velveeta.
Already a smash hit with the Brits, the New York quintet -- named for a bit of boudoir horseplay best left for the pages of racier periodicals -- has yet to conquer thisaway. But if such noted fans as U2's Bono and Sir Elton get their wish, the retro-grooving Sisters (actually four guys and a gal, all with silly noms de rock) will soon have crowds the world over celebrating -- as the song "Filthy/Gorgeous" goes -- the "acid junkie college flunky dirty puppy" vibe of their fine self-titled debut.
Much like fellow time-trippers the Darkness, who earnestly honor the hirsute-metal movement of those Have a Nice Days, the Sisters package their stuck-in-the-'70s sordidness with genuine warmth and theatrical panache. Bouncing onstage to the strains of some Dolly Parton dance fluff, the five lovelies in sassy catwalk couture -- plus a notably regular-looking dude helping on keyboards -- posed, twirled and preened for the capacity crowd all before playing a single note. Beauty comes first with the Sisters, but brains are sure to follow.
Flame-tressed singer Ana Matronic, a cabaret stalwart from New York's Lower East Side, was painted into a va-va-va-voom black number adorned with the blissed-out mug of either Mamie Van Doren or Jayne Mansfield (name-the-bombshell was kind of tough with all that gyrating). But it was frontman Jake Shears, in low-slung leather pants and a teensy vest that barely covered his chiseled chest, who had most of the women, and just about all of the men, panting with each saucy thrust and Freddie Mercury-esque air spank.
Indeed, the Sisters are already popular with the out-of-the-closet community, as most of their songs address the highs and lows of the urban gay lifestyle. But like their piano-playing patron saint, the Sisters wrap their same-sex musings in melody-rich, instantly catchy packages (the grandiose ballad "Mary" was a gorgeous example) that are hard to resist no matter whom you date. Many of their tunes would have fit in just fine on "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," an all-purpose classic that just happens to address gay themes, as well.
Of course, chief songwriters Shears and bassist-guitarist-keyboardist Babydaddy honor other influences, too. They love the Spinners, Meat Loaf and Roxy Music. They obviously have a thing for vintage David Bowie: The opening number, "Take Your Mama" -- about a young man setting a parent straight about his unstraightness -- chugged along on a "Young Americans" punk-soul shuffle courtesy of guitarist Del Marquis and drummer Paddy Boom.
And for the Sisters' breakout club hit, a cheeky cover of "Comfortably Numb," they replaced the acid-dipped pomposity of the original Pink Floyd bummer with disco thumpa-thumpa-thumpa and high-arching falsetto heroics. It sounded a lot like Frankie Goes to Hollywood doing Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger." It also sounded a lot like the Bee Gees.
For all the band's garish posturing, pink and purple strobe lights, and risque quips (Ms. Matronic barked enough sexual commands to make Jenna Jameson wince), the Sisters are also dynamite musicians, able to seamlessly re-create the multilayered gloss of their album in a live setting. And give credit to Shears, whose falsetto is the band's secret weapon -- and doesn't he know it. It was risky sticking two slow piano ballads -- "Return to Oz" and "It Can't Come Quickly Enough" -- at the tail end of the mostly upbeat set list. But Shears, a sincere performer with rock-operatic dreams, kept the crowd rapt anyway.
Giving the crowd one last chance to dance, the Sisters closed with a rare clunker, "Music Is the Victim," a sign that the band's crop of influences (Timbuk 3?!) needs a little pruning. But Matronic busted out some burlesque moves (and almost busted out of her dress), Shears showed off those cool lower-ab muscles that most of us can only dream of, and everyone stayed happy despite the well-intentioned dud.
When all was said and done, in 70 glorious minutes of pomp and come-ons, sweetness and feather boas, the Scissor Sisters turned a nifty trick: a musical one-night stand that won't leave you feeling guilty in the morning.