The Stranglers Haven’t Lost Their Grip

by delarue

When the act you want to see (in this case, brooding British art-rock songwriter Mike Marlin) gets cancelled due to visa issues, do you still go to the show? If the Stranglers are headlining, sure, why not? We’ve reached the point where punk nostalgia goes back 40 years, which is scarier than the Stranglers’ name.

There was no reason to expect the Stranglers to be any good at this point – and yet they were. There were only two of the four original members at last night’s Highline Ballroom show: keyboardist Dave Greenfield, who can still fire off warp-speed classical licks on a variety of vintage synths and organs (while slowly draining a Guinness!!) and bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel, whose ferocious chops and growling, gritty tone are as formidable as ever. Their new drummer Jim Macaulay not only gets to be the new Black: he’s the new Jet Black.  How cool is that? And frontman/guitarist Baz Warne won over the crowd with his haphazardly eclectic, skillful playing and snotty persona in a faithful reproduction of what the band’s original leader, Hugh Cornwell (who’s coming to the Highline for a solo show in December) used to do onstage.

Methodically and exuberantly, they ran through the hits. Because the British band was has been around so long, they’ve succeeded with more styles than most other groups. Their proggy early 80s wannabe Doors epics have aged surprisingly well; their darkish wannabe Music Machine garage rock less so. Although you wouldn’t expect a band with their name to be funny, like most artists associated with the punk movement, they could be hilarious and as it turns out still can be after all these years. They sped up the boorish punk reggae of Peaches, which the crowd loved; a bit later, they fired off a high-voltage version of Nice and Sleazy, Burnel making its iconic basssline look effortless and then segued into the punkest song of the night, Bring on the Nubiles, a raised middle finger to the censors and the politically correct. And the last of the encores, Tank, a sarcastic novelty hit from 1979, still packs a punch as a snide antiwar anthem.

The best song of the night was an impressively amped-up version of Always the Sun, one of their two American hits, Burnel’s trebly bass anchoring Greenfield’s haunting synth textures. Greenfield got to spin through endless volleys of neo-baroque on expansively artsy stuff like Toiler on the Sea (the surprise opener), The Raven, Goodbye Toulouse and a long cover of Walk on By where he handed off to Warne, who gamely kept the Light My Fire ambience going. The sold-out crowd sang along on the poppier material: the bouncy Who Wants the World, a blistering take of No More Heroes, the nonchalantly caustic Nuclear Device and the similarly nonchalant, catchy cautionary tale Skin Deep.

Of the more recent, post-Cornwell material, the goth-tinged Norfolk Coast and an even darker anthem that could have been a Ninth House song were the best; a halfheartedly rap-flavored number fell flat. And Golden Brown – Cornwell’s blithe ode to heroin, their biggest American hit – revealed itself as a Dave Brubeck ripoff. But in an era when the center has imploded, the only way for a musician to make a living is to work a niche style and there literally are no more heroes, the Stranglers still have plenty of breath in them. Maybe that’s why there were so many young people in the crowd.