In 1978, my first band manager was all over me to see Generation X at a club in San Francisco. I wasn’t into it for some reason, so I asked, “Why? What’s the big deal?”
He said, “Because you need to see the singer Billy Idol, and truly experience what a rock star is.”
Idol certainly delivered. He was the snarling, stylish, somewhat dangerous, unique, beguiling, and beautiful definition of a rock star 41 years ago in a small, moldy punk venue, and not much had changed when he walked onstage to a sold-out house at the posh Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco last night.
He appeared to cheers and applause, strutting like a caged tiger anxious for a snack, and immediately dropped a litany of “F bombs” while explaining that music and stories were going to fill the evening. If you snapped a cell photo at any millisecond while he was stalking the lights, you would have captured a perfect rock-star pose. He simply can’t help being a colossal presence.
But, as charismatic as he is, Idol is just one half of the musical team that produced his solo hits from 1981 onward. Guitarist Steve Stevens is as much a part of the Idol sound as Idol himself—a fact that was acknowledged by Idol with a subtle but powerful tableau. After roaring, “Let’s play,” Idol spent much of the first two songs turned sideways to the audience, singing directly to Stevens. It was a sweet and telling way to show how much the musical collaboration means to the two rock giants, as well as how much they respect and rely on each other to this day.
And, as stripped down as this unplugged tour is, the duo definitely needs to exploit and nurture their shared strengths. Set design is, well, virtually non-existent. There were no video projections to help “tell the tales,” and the total stage setup was two stools, two tiny side tables (for water, picks, hand towels, a small drum machine, and so on), monitors (although both performers were wearing in-ears), Stevens’ pedalboard, and a mic stand for Idol. Stevens’ tech did guitar changes from a position behind the wings of the stage, so there wasn’t even a rack of cool guitars to look at. Given the high-production values of much of Idol’s ’80s catalog, it was going to be interesting to see how one guitar and a vocal could do complete justice to the tracks.
Stevens brought on a bit of help, but not much. On a couple of songs, he walked over to the beat box on his table, pushed a button, and a very simple (but effective) drum groove boomed and chattered through the house sound system. Then, for a few songs, he employed the onboard synth control of his Godin Multiac acoustics (one nylon-string and one steel-string, I believe) to produce string and choral layers. He also brought up a prototype of a brand new Knaggs signature acoustic for a tune.
“It’s the right shape and basic construction,” he said before the show, “but, cosmetically, it will be different. There will be a tortoise-shell binding and we’re working to get a nice black lacquer for the finish without compromising the sound. The Knaggs team handmade this one in, like, just seven or so days when we announced the tour, because I wanted to see how it would handle the road.”
However, one mic and one guitar was all Stevens and Idol needed to rev up the crowd, and Idol seemed to enjoy the ferociously stripped-down presentation.
“There is no vocal machine singing for me,” he roared to the audience. “I AM the vocal machine!”
For his part, Stevens’ technique and performance chops are ferocious, and it was thrilling to hear him attack the songs somewhat unfettered. When we talked earlier, he said he was still working out how to take single-note solos without compromising the energy or impact of the show.
“Kind of like Ringo with the Beatles when they played live?” I said. “John told him not to do any drum rolls because the band would lose the groove.”
“Yes,” said Stevens. “Kind of like that.”
But, man, every time he stepped out, he wowed the crowd, so I think his concerns were unwarranted. He also brought a ton of electrifying Townshend-esque chordal punches, tommy-gun-like flamenco flourishes, and cascading melody lines to the material—all of which made the musical elements of the show tremendously exciting. You almost forgot there wasn’t a full band behind the duo.
See for Yourself!
As for the stories, one or two critics have knocked Idol’s remembrances as being unscripted, meandering, and unfocused. They were. At times. But they were also authentic, and bristling with his personality and heart. I mean, this is kind of a punk-rock acoustic show. Would they rather have it choreographed and chained to teleprompters and sequenced backing tracks?
Not me. I loved everything about the “unscripted” presentation. It was as real as it gets for rock performers in the current scene. I know it’s a cliche to say this, but is really WAS as if you stumbled into a Stevens-Idol family dinner, and the two cats were entertaining a small gathering of intimates. Yeah. It was that engaging—only for a an audience of a thousand.