To Brighton for a Blondie concert and the realisation that what I’ve missed the most during the Covid-induced famine of live gigs is the feeling you get in your chest from a loud electric bass, the deep-rooted foundation of a rock band in action as they deliver their songs in the best way imaginable. To a certain extent I can recreate vocals and wailing guitars on my hi-fi system, and even the drums if I punch up the volume, but no way can I reproduce the boom of a Fender Precision plugged into a big amp and big speaker cabinet, then dispatched through a PA system into a decent-sized auditorium such as Brighton Centre.
It helped that the bass in question was wielded, deftly but unobtrusively, by Glen Matlock, the Sex Pistol jettisoned from the group for displaying too much in the way of musical chops yet lacking the tone-deaf nihilism of his successor. Glen went on to other bands and also became a bass man for hire amongst his peers, and a very good one too, but his arrival in Blondie – at three weeks’ notice, he tells me – came as a bit of a surprise, though it evens out the generational divide between the three younger members of the group as it is now constituted, and the two older hands, singer Debbie Harry and unrelenting drummer Clem Burke.With founder, principal songwriter and guitarist Chris Stein taking a sabbatical on doctors’ orders, it is left to Tommy Kessler and newcomer Andee Blacksugar – what a great rock’n’roll name – to handle the guitar duties between them, switching leads and generally adopting a sort of twin guitar duo role that reminded me a bit of the sparring that went on in Lynyrd Skynyrd. Both sing well, as does keyboard player Matt Katz-Bohen, and Glen chips in a bit too, so the vocal backdrop to their revered singer is never less than imposing.
But the spotlight, as ever, is on Debbie. Remarkably, this foremost New York punk siren, graduate with honours from CBGBs, turns a mature 77 in July but rather than occupy a rocking chair with a cat and bundle of knitting in her lap she prefers to rock the stage dressed in red leopard-skin tights and a black bin liner held in place with a wide red belt, her blonde hair flying wildly in all directions, her poise as energetic and turbulent as ever. Debbi’s voice remains clear and strident, though she wisely eschewed straining for some of the top notes in the group’s gold-plated catalogue of hits. Thankfully, she abandoned her sunglasses midway through the show so we could see her still-handsome features in close up on the video screens each side of the stage and, having taken the measure of the audience, she seemed sincerely delighted to be singing her songs again after the Covid postponements, grateful that Brighton’s Blondie fans turned out in such large numbers to see her band.It was, by and large, a greatest hits show, accompanied by plenty of imaginative, occasionally quirky, personalised graphics on a large screen at the back. I liked how King Kong’s great paw held Debbie, the Lichtenstein comic and op-art style visuals, and the footage of the group from their Parallel Lines days. Someone had even drawn a glass heart that smashed into smithereens.
The concert opened with ‘X-Offender’ and closed, just over 90 minutes later, with ‘One Way Or Another’. The sound was fat and ballsy and well-mixed throughout, the band well-drilled, the set clearly and cleverly rehearsed to align with the visuals. Of the generous 21 songs delivered, 15 were from the 1970s, with the remaining six, among them ‘Maria’, including only two, ‘Long Time’ and ‘Fragments’, from their most recent album, 2017’s Pollinator which they promoted heavily on their last UK tour the same year and which I rated very highly. I wouldn’t have complained if they played two or three more from it.
Still, it was the hits the crowd wanted, and they weren’t disappointed. After ‘Sunday Girl’, ‘Picture This’ and ‘The Tide Is High’ there was a slight lull during ‘What I Heard’ but the concert moved up a gear during ‘Atomic’, Debbie inciting a mass singalong on that lovely ‘Oh, your hair is beautiful’ line, and thereafter she never looked back. Some songs were neatly segued together, ‘Fade Away And Radiate’ into ‘Tide’ – which featured two unexpected grungy solos - and ‘Shayla’ into a power-packed ‘Union City Blue’. The four-song pre-encore hell-for-leather ride through ‘Rapture’, ‘Maria’, ‘Dreaming’ and ‘Heart Of Glass’, heralded by jungle drums, seemed like a knockout blow, but they returned for four more, ‘No Exit’, ‘Fragments’ – an odd choice in the light of its complexity – ‘Call Me’ and ‘One Way Or Another’, another mass singalong. At this, the ninety-minute mark, I couldn’t help but be impressed by Debbie’s stamina and, of course, Clem’s unrelenting assault on his drums, a pace he sustained throughout with characteristic resilience.
The 2022 Blondie tour visits Hull tonight then five more UK cities before transferring to America’s west coast, Mexico and, in August, some big shows in the east, including a couple in their native New York. If what I saw in Brighton last night is anything to go by, there’s still plenty of life in Blondie, with or without founder Chris Stein.
Finally, I should add that due to slow service in a burger joint on nearby Duke Street, we regrettably missed most of Johnny Marr’s opening set but the four songs I heard, among them ’How Soon Is Now’ and ‘There Is A Light A Light That Never Goes Out’ sounded terrific and, as ever, the former Smiths guitarist looked great too.