As an artist, you make your Lincoln Center debut – assuming you can get one – by bringing a polished program that’s going to knock out the critics, right? If you’re Tammy Faye Starlite, you bring a raw if tightly rehearsed work in progress – and pack the house, and blow them away with it. Thursday night the insurgent comedienne/chanteuse/agitator led a poised yet gritty six-piece rock band through a characteristically irreverent, often hilarious and just as shattering set of Marianne Faithfull songs, including the cult singer’s iconic 1979 album Broken English in its entirety.
Beyond her work in film, the theatre and tv, Tammy Faye Starlite has won a devoted following for her unsparing, often caustically funny but revealing portraits of complicated rock personalities. She’s come a long way since her days at the now-defunct Alphabet City hotspot Lakeside Lounge, where she led the Mike Hunt Band through a series of snarky Rolling Stones album cover nights, pillaging the Glimmer Twins catalog for both gems and duds. Her most popular revue both lampoons and celebrates the music of Nico. Likewise, Tammy has used music and albums by the New York Dolls, Blondie and the Runaways as well as her own alt-country songwriting as springboards for stingingly literate, historically informed, uproariously amusing political commentary.
As usual this time out, the comedy was merciless. Tammy mocked Faithfull’s socialite snobbery as well as the acid-fueled hippie mysticism with which much of her work from the 70s is laced. In an impressively faithful Tory accent, Tammy channeled the British singer garbling her Biblical references, quoting from the “Book of Seth.” A little later, in introducing an aching, vividly bitter version of John Lennon’s Working Class Hero, she pondered whether a child of privilege such as Faithfull, or for that matter, Rick Perry and the rest of the Fox News cabal, could understand a 99-percenter’s rage and frustration. Her wryly meandering conclusion was that they could, even if they’re not exactly working-class and hardly heroes. But the music just as often took centerstage.
Early on, the sheer strength of Tammy’s voice threatened to subsume the elegant hesitance, not to mention the drug-damaged melismatics, that are Faithfull’s signature vocal tics. But as the show went on, the evocation became more eerily accurate, culminating in a rivetingly surreal, jangly rock version of Times Square. That song quickly became just as much an elegy for an edgy early 80s New York priced out by mallstore sterility and Disney tastelessness as it was a portrait of heartbroken alienation set against a backdrop of menace and decay. Lead guitarist Kevin Salem rescued the lesser tracks on Broken English – “the filler,” as Tammy acknowledged – with nonchalantly savage, expertly unhinged, judiciously placed acid blues licks. Multi-instrumentalist Keith Hartel channeled another guy with the same name on electric guitar, later switching to keyboards, finally turning in a spot-on, absolutely haunting take of Sister Morphine on acoustic, which was the night’s most memorable song and the point at which the personalities of Tammy and Marianne fused as one.
Getting there was a lot of fun. As usual, Tammy sprinkled snide bits of trivia and razorwire improv in with the songs. Folksinger Tim Hardin, co-writer of Brain Drain, the prosaically bluesy ode to scoring dope, had become known as “Tim Heroin” in New York circles by the time he penned the lyrics. As the show went on, the way Tammy handled a persistently vocal audience member who once was a neighbor of Hardin’s, and still revered him, became a clinic in how to finesse the most unwilling subject to set up a cruelly perfect punchline. She finally let down her hair with a raging, aptly punked-out, expletive-strewn version of Why’d Ya Do It, complete with faux-orgasmic vocalese which became a very physical shout-out to Penny Arcade, whose performance piece Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! Faithfull had made a cameo in back in the 90s.
Bassist Jared Michael Nickerson gave the album’s seemingly interminable stoner new wave title track an unwaveringly circular groove in tandem with drummer Ron Metz. Salem fueled Shel Silverstein’s would-be suicide epic The Ballad of Lucy Jordan with some unexpected U2 riffage, while keyboardist David Dunton switched from fluid organ lines to more sardonically woozy synth voicings. And Craig Hoek built an unexpected but effectively optimistic ambience on some of the later material in the set on both alto and soprano sax. “We wanted to play as long as we could, considering that we probably won’t be invited back,” Tammy snidely averred before an attempt to get an audience singalong going with As Tears Go By, but the crowd seemed too stunned and overwhelmed to respond. And it wouldn’t be wishful thinking to hope for a return engagement: as both the performance and brave choice of artist made clear, this isn’t your father’s Lincoln Center anymore. In the meantime, Tammy and the band are going to reprise most of this show on May 13 at Joe’s Pub.