On September 21st, Bob Geldof played one of this year's greatest concerts to a theater full of empty seats. The former singer in the Boomtown Rats and knighted architect of Live Aid was back in New York for the first time in more than a decade. New York, sadly, was elsewhere. Only 350 people showed up at Town Hall, not even a quarter of capacity.
But the turnout -- and loud affection of those who came -- brought out the fighting soul in Geldof. One of the brassiest frontmen of the New Wave era, he powered his way through two hours of top song, straight talk and sharp laughs like a man who knew his true worth. "My personal life has been shite for the last six years," Geldof confessed early in the night, a restrained reference to the black circus of his late-Nineties divorces from pop-TV hostess Paula Yates, the child-custody war that followed and the tragic suicides of Yates' boyfriend, Michael Hutchence of INXS, and then Yates herself. Yet the Geldof on stage at Town Hall was more like the one I first saw with the Rats at the Apollo theater in Glasgow, Scotland, in December, 1978: a dancing mantis with a voice full of Irish spit and Jagger vinegar, fronting his five-man band (including fellow ex-Rat, bassist Pete Briquette) with such brio and exuberant strum that he broke half a dozen guitar strings during the night. With Bob Loveday's violin and Alan Dunn's accordion putting the jig'n'reel in Geldof's punk-enriched pop, the effect was a hard-driving Pogues -- except the singer wasn't drunk.
It was a shock to hear how much quality writing Geldof has done since the end of the Rats, under the long shadows of Live Aid and tabloid hell. "Room 19 (Sha La La Lee)," from his 1992 solo album, The Happy Club, was a bolt of Cajun-mod cheer -- "I'm a Believer" via the Small Faces and squeezebox. "Soft Soil," also from that album, was a piercing ballad about common people making uncommon sacrifices. Geldof also put bright living skin on the skeletons rattling around in his dark new album, Sex Age and Death (Koch): cranking up the acidic kissoffs in "One for Me" with a free man's glee; turning the harsh accusations in "Inside Your Head" into a thumping composite of the Rolling Stones' "Let It Bleed" and John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band.
Even in the Rats' golden age, Geldof, as a songwriter, was written off as more mouth than metaphor. But his heated reading of the 1979 teenage-sniper story "I Don't Like Mondays" -- just voice and keyboards -- was a stunning reminder of Geldof's original gifts for detailed storytelling, magnetic melody and the acute self-examination that was often mistaken, even by his champions, as high-brow nihilism. And when Geldof threw himself into the full-band blasts of "Rat Trap," "Mary of the 4th Form" and "Diamond Smiles," you could hear again why the Rats were, in their half-decade, Ireland's E Street Stones -- and why Geldof should play those songs more often.
It may happen. Backstage, after the show, I watched Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders rave to Geldof about the show and give him the full-court press, encouraging him to take his act across America on a double bill with her band. We should be so lucky.