The words "intimate club gig" and "arena-rock band" should not go together. The whole point of enormo-dome music is size, of riffs and choruses pumped up to the concrete arches. But long before they became the 1980s kings of year-long coliseum tours and multi-platinum heavy melody -- over 24 million copies sold of 1983's Pyromania and 1987's Hysteria combined -- Def Leppard played in rooms a lot smaller than New York City's Irving Plaza. In the late 1970s, when they were the prize upstarts of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, the Leppards earned their crust and stripes in tiny pubs and working men's clubs, rattling cash registers and shattering pint glasses with their precocious mix of twin Thin Lizzy-style guitars and Queen-like vocal shine.
So last night's show -- the Leppards' first Manhattan appearance in ten years, singer Joe Elliott noted from the stage -- was almost like coming home. It was also part of coming back: The band would release a new studio album today -- X (pronounced like the letter or the number ten, your choice) -- and it arrives in a weird pocket of time. The five Leppards, now mostly in their forties, are considered too young to be equals of the Who or the Rolling Stones, yet too long in the jowl and too associated with the dreaded "power ballad" to rate nu-metal respect.
But what the Leppards have in abundance are hits, all scored and executed with a visceral cleansing joy. Elliott, bassist Rick Savage, drummer Rick Allen and guitarists Phil Collen and Vivian Campbell clearly love their work, and they advertised it from first song ("Let's Get Rocked") to encore ("Rock! Rock! [Till You Drop]"). It was a gas to hear the classicism at the heart of the Leppards' sound, like the Jeff Beck-like curls and screams in Collen's acrobatic leads. It was fascinating, too, to hear how much of Leppard's pop savvy -- the tight candied four-part vocal harmonies, the R&B-dance inflections of "Rocket" and "Pour Some Sugar on Me" -- has turned up on Britney Spears and 'N Sync records. Bonus irony: The Leppards, when they started, were a genuine boy band. Their average age was seventeen when they made their debut EP.
The Leppards did not overdo the promo at Irving Plaza, playing only one song from the new album, "Now," a classy variant on modern-rock ballladry. Instead, they simply reeled off reason after reason ("Photograph," "Armageddon It," "Animal," "Foolin'") why they are still a great night out. A band that has, in its twenty-four years, literally defied loss of life (the late guitarist Steve Clark) and limb (Allen's left arm), the Leppards are cheerful survivors. And tonight, they made a joyful noise in the perfect confined space.