When it comes to reunited bands, the biggest question for many fans is, “Who’s been replaced?” In the case of the Stranglers, Baz Warne took over the British punk pub rock band’s lead vocals almost thirteen years ago, and the band remains almost the same. Seeing them at the Highline Ballroom, I got the impression that this may be a selling point, depending on your level of fandom.
The Ballroom teemed with 60 year-old dudes in Stranglers tour t-shirts, alongside twenty-somethings in punk-revival denim jackets, the kind of crowd you’d expect to argue about generational responsibility. While the venue is usually home to fusion pieces, international bands, and a fair amount of jazz, it was still appropriate for the show.
One of the strangest things about the show was the band’s opener, Luba Dvorak. Emulating an early Springsteen, Luba has neither the voice nor the lyricism to be taken too seriously. Though his guitar work and his accompanying slide guitarist are to be commended, the set felt out of place before the Stranglers, and undercut any chance the crowd had to latch on to his style.
The Stranglers are workmen of late 70’s England; punk enough to be rude, but too new wave to be counted amongst the greats of London. Their style relies on a sort of prodding crassness, pub rock with a smile and a flair of intelligence. Most of that is still on display, though some of the members gave off an air of fatigue appropriate to their age. Also, there was a fair amount of soloing that comes with a band that’s been playing the same three-minute songs for forty years.
I wouldn’t call Mr. Warne’s style distracting or off-putting, but it has a sort of immaturity that takes some of the wind out of the Stranglers’ older hits, and marks the newer songs as more generic than intended. Their catalogue is populist, but I still feel the Stranglers aren’t generic by nature. Their songs retain a place in rock history that crosses from punk to new wave, and deserves a unique front voice.
As for stage presence, Baz spent a small portion of the show arguing with a heckler, and the irritation worked its way into the songs a bit. But the crowd was still in love with the band, and amongst leaps and collective swaying, it was clear that Baz hadn’t driven away any real fans of the band. Dave Greenfield‘s keyboards remain the most striking thing about the band; I doubt I have ever heard rock keyboard at the same volume or intensity.
Along with their consistent energy, the show itself was a bit of a marathon; the Stranglers managed to churn out 25 songs over the course of an hour and a half, and with no significant change in quality or volume. Hits like “Golden Brown,” “Always the Sun,” and “Peaches” played well, and elicited the right response from the crowd. Some new songs stood out, including the dark “Mercury Rising,” but many of them bled together, a bit too similar to justify playing in between their stellar early hits.
I think it would be hard for anyone outside the circle of hardcore fans to love the current Stranglers, but they make a decent effort, and hold on to most of the charm that made them successes in the first place.