He may no longer be the young, lithe, feral figurehead of punk’s collision with early ’80s British pop star-making machinery, but despite a heftier frame and more restrained choreography, Adam Ant remains a formidable, ferocious performer. The Londoner’s first New York show on Saturday night, in the midst of his first U.S. tour in 17 years, was poignantly (or coincidentally) booked in the hellishly crowded heart of Times Square, at the Best Buy Theater, a venue that shares the same office building as MTV. It is MTV, of course, which over three decades ago catapulted Ant from his cool, but cult, punk berth to the stratosphere of one of the video channel’s earliest — and most photogenic — superstars, a sexy highwayman with an affection for white face paint.
Examining the subsequent paths of both Ant and the now musically anorexic MTV, it seems, in terms of artistic credibility and legacy, it is Ant who has triumphed – despite painful personal travails with bipolar disorder and a career left to languish for years. Had those hard times fallen in an era more empathetic to depression, as Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos experienced earlier this year after revealing his struggle with mental illness, Ant’s own battles might have been received with understanding rather than derision. The compassion and appreciation that has greeted the 57-year-old musician’s return in the UK and now the States over this past year and a half signals not just a comeback, but a personal victory for Ant.
Ant is on the brink of releasing his first solo album in almost 18 years this January, the rather busily-titled Adam Ant is the Blueback Hussar in Marrying the Gunner’s Daughter, his first since 1995’s Wonderful. On this night’s chapter of the Blueback Hussar Tour there was, surprisingly, an even division between middle-aged Ant aficionados and those recent converts in their teens and twenties — some sporting brocade jackets and a slash of ivory paint across the bridge of the nose — although they weren’t born when clattering drumsticks first introduced ‘Antmusic’ back in 1980. Adam and the Ants’ infectious use of the classic Burundi beat and its frontman’s keening wails and sexual theatricality remains influential, finding its way in the work of a new generation of bands like Friends and White Rabbits.
While mainstream hits like bubblegum buoyancy of ‘Goody Two Shoes’ or the sweetly-crooned ballad ‘Wonderful’ might be well known, they deviate from the bulk of Ant’s discography which leans to wiry, harder punk rock. Those pugilistic roots dominated the nearly two-hour set which drew heavily on his early incendiary recordings, like ‘Plastic Surgery’ and ‘Deutscher Girls’, tracks like ‘Cartrouble’ and the Elizabeth Taylor-inspired “Cleopatra” from Adam and the Ants’ 1979 debut Dirk Wears White Socks, and assorted B-sides, like the searing encore of ‘Red Scab’.
Sporting a resplendent chapeau, which teetered on his head like a cockerel shagging a Philip Treacy castoff, a billowing white shirt that was eventually shed to reveal his own tour t-shirt, and Jarvis Cocker-ish spectacles, the sartorially-offbeat Ant didn’t converse with the crowd until eight songs into his set — delivering a gentle “good evening” following ‘Stand and Deliver’. He became chattier as the night wore on, confessing that ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’ was “special” for him, explaining ‘Wonderful’ as “my first and only attempt at a love song” and cheekily following that sugar cube of a song with the S&M snap of ‘Whip in My Valise’. He played one new song from his upcoming album — the vaguely rockabilly rumble of ‘Vince Taylor’, inspired by the late singer of the Playboys.
While mainstays such as ‘Prince Charming’ — saved for the encore — or the kinetic thrill of ‘Dog Eat Dog’ and ‘Antmusic’ might still define Ant’s artistic zenith, there was never a time on this night when Ant didn’t seem fully engaged and committed to every song , as if they’d just been written the other day rather than decades ago. He seemed renewed, confident and happy onstage this Saturday night — fearlessly attacking a young man’s songs with an older man’s hindsight — and that might be the very essence of a satisfying comeback.
Photo: Robert Kenney