In America in 2017, the tide is both literally and figuratively high. So Debbie Harry‘s salvo to the crowd at New York’s Beacon Theatre on Tuesday night was appropriately nihilistic, as she opened the set singing “One Way or Another” from the perspective of a bedazzled bumblebee wearing a black cape with “Stop Fucking the Planet” scrawled on the back. Never has the refrain “I’m gonna get ya, get ya, get ya, get ya” sounded so chilling.
It was also a great reminder of why the world has always looked to Harry for what to do in troubled times. In the Seventies, Harry – a kooky go-go dancer from nowhere New Jersey – permeated New York’s insular punk scene with a brusque facade, Playboy Bunny credentials and a spectral falsetto. Her band, Blondie, which still includes original drummer Clem Burke and guitarist/songwriter Chris Stein, became rock pioneers best known for non-rock songs that brought in influences like reggae, disco, pop and rap. Harry’s assuredness is as appealing now as it was then. Even when she takes off the mask and she’s just a 72-year-old body-popping in plain black leggings and platform sandals, singing Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” there’s a calming grace in simply being in her presence.
It would seem that no one agrees with this sentiment more than Shirley Manson, the lead singer of Garbage, who opened the show. When Manson inducted Blondie into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 11 years ago, she said, “Blondie put it this way once: ‘Dreaming is free’ … yet if anyone had told me 15 years ago when I was unemployed and desperately frustrated, that I would be up on a podium in New York City, in preparation to induct Blondie into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I would have peed myself laughing and told them to fuck right off.”
Social issues were the undercurrent of Garbage’s set. Manson dedicated 2001’s “Cherry Lips” to the LGBTQ community, a thread continuing into “Sex Is Not The Enemy” and “Queer” wherein Manson’s fulsome purr sounded like Michael Hutchence with strep throat. When she took a deep squat in front of a guy in the front row and held his hand between her legs, it somehow felt like a political statement. Manson has always skillfully transmuted the anguish of her songs into performance art like this, ranging from whiplash twirls during “Stupid Girl” to a catatonic child’s pose on “I’m Only Happy When It Rains.”
While Garbage’s set was heavy with new songs from their recent LP Strange Little Birds, Blondie front-loaded with hits, one after another, including the lustful moodiness of two of their biggest songs, “Call Me” and “Rapture.” On the latter, Harry nailed each rhyme from “Fab Five Freddy” to the “man from Mars.” She rapped at the front of the stage, gliding on tiptoes, delivering the lines with the flair and precision of a disco missionary of the Church of Andy Warhol.
Blondie played a handful of songs from their 11th studio album, Pollinator, which Harry ominously reminded the crowd was one of the last records made at NYC’s now-defunct Magic Shop. She also shouted out her newfangled collaborators like St. Vincent producer John Congleton. Though, there were many more she could’ve mentioned like Sia Furler, Charli XCX and Dave Sitek. The band performed the chiming rock squall Johnny Marr wrote from the album called “My Monster,” as well as “Long Time” written by Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, which sounds more like Parallel Lines–era Blondie than anything the band has come up with since then with its far-out animalistic vibe. (To be fair, Hynes built his reputation supplying Solange with Blondie-inspired songs like “Bad Girls.”)
“It’s really good to be in New York,” Harry said after a jubilant encore of “The Tide Is High,” backed by a youth brass band bouncing across the stage. As Harry left after the requisite group bow, she bent down and picked up her cape and bee mask like she was tidying her living room after a Halloween house party, ready to head upstairs and go to bed. Welcome home, Debbie Harry.