Bebe Buell – Better Than Ever At the Hiro Ballroom
At this point Bebe Buell can rest on her laurels if she wants to. The legendary rock scenestress has written the well-received memoir Rebel Heart; raised a popular daughter (Liv Tyler); and in the 80s and early 90s, she led a couple of first-class bands who were sort of thinking person’s alternatives to Blondie. So it was something of a surprise, and a heartwarming one, to see Buell pack the Hiro Ballroom last night, fronting a tight new group and airing out a bunch of first-rate powerpop songs from her new album Hard Love. Some of those tunes evoked 80s new wave/popsters the Motels – especially since Buell is working her lower register with more authority than she used to – and some of them leaned back toward glamrock. But the best ones – in fact, almost everything she played – had a distinctly defiant, oldschool New York edge.
If you look at the video from thirty years ago, it’s obvious that Buell wasn’t out of her element with the guys she palled around with (Elvis Costello and the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler, to name a couple). She really knew what she was doing in front of the mic, and she still does – this could be her finest hour. Backed by two guitars, inobtrusive synthesizer, drums and Joan Jett’s former bassist, Buell didn’t have anything on a laptop and she didn’t rely on her excellent backup singer to carry the tunes – although she did appreciate the harmonies. “She’s got my back,” Buell explained with an appreciative wink. The show kicked off on an impressively ominous note with the crunchy powerpop Sugar Sugar (no relation to the 60s pop ditty), with a gypsy punk edge that sounded like Vera Beren in a slightly less menacing mood. They got even crunchier after that with a glam/80s tune possibly titled Stop Look Listen. Several of the songs revisited a dark new wave vibe that evoked DollHouse, another New York band who should be better remembered than they are. “Turn out all the lights, she said,” Buell intoned on a particularly ominous, seductive one of those songs a little later in the set.
Normal Girl sounded like the Ramones doing the Runaways, toying with gender roles – Buell’s normal girls raise hell, mess with guys and don’t kiss ass. The Joey Ramone requiem Fly Black Angel got an epic glam-noir treatment, with a long, surprisingly ethereal outro: “Across this city headlights shine for you,” Buell sang over the brooding, watery swoosh and clang. You Got It All Wrong swung with a raging Dead Boys midtempo stomp welded to creepy, swooping upper-register synth; her cover of the Gang of Four’s I Love a Man in a Uniform ripped the sarcasm of the lyric from the margins and stuck it on the front page. The closing track on the new album, a big, crashing anthem called I Will Wait had a chilly unease that they sent flying with a cover of her old boyfriend Mick Jagger’s God Gave Me Everything. Throughout the show, Buell enticed the surprisingly young crowd to come toward the stage: “I want you to be close to me,” she assured them. And she made good on that promise. After the set was over, she went straight to the merch table to hang out with everyone, exactly what you’d want from someone who’d just done a song called the Mother of Rock n Roll.