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Buster Poindexter Still Looking for a Kiss at Carlyle: Concert Review

Buster Poindexter - P 2014
Michael Wilhoite

The Bottom Line

The New York Dolls front man finds his cabaret persona's relaxed shtick suits this storied venue well.

Venue

The Carlyle Cafe
New York City
(Friday, May 9, 2014)

David Johansen puts on the tux again for a Buster-flavored cabaret act at legendary venue.

It was billed as a one-night stand, but Buster Poindexter's appearance Friday night at the Cafe Carlyle, which followed a debut gig there last Halloween, had the feeling of a preview of things to come.

One might have called it an audition, had the delivery not been so assured: Fully attuned to the expectations of the club's well-heeled clientele, the singer kept the energy relaxed, a mellowed echo of the loud party vibe he employed during his late-'80s brush with celebrity. Saving his hit from that period, the Latin dance number "Hot Hot Hot," for the encore, he tacitly admitted it didn't quite fit his mood. "This is obligatory," he said, "but I'll try to do my best."

Plenty of the tunes weren't on any of Poindexter's records, but were plucked from various genres and adapted to this five-man setting — there was "Monkey"'s calypso and the Big Joe Turner-ish "My Old Man," the ancient vaudeville of Bert Williams' "Nobody" and a standout cover of "The King is Gone (So Are You)" — a fairly obscure George Jones song whose heartbroken narrator calls on both Elvis Presley and Fred Flintstone for support. The repertoire wasn't uniformly strong — some of the numbers are obscure for good reason — and at least onxe, with the Lee Dorsey hit "Ride Your Pony," Poindexter couldn't quite fill the original artist's shoes. But in casting a wide net, the singer displayed a record nerd's winning enthusiasm for introducing friends to songs they haven't heard, and if this becomes a regular gig, he's bound to unearth some that become new favorites.

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In introducing his take on "Rocket 88," which many music geeks argue was the first rock 'n' roll record, Poindexter made a hinting allusion to the non-cabaret side of his musical life. Few in the room looked like they would know much about the New York Dolls, the punk progenitors that Poindexter's alter ego, David Johansen, fronted in the '70s — with the exception of a gentleman who took colorful liberties with the club's "jackets recommended" dress code and a couple of ladies whose dresses suggested they might once have been familiar with more outré fashions. Arguably the best song of the evening dated back to near this period, though, if not to the Dolls, then to a few years before Buster's invention: The set-closing "Heart of Gold," heard on Johansen's 1981 solo LP Here Comes the Night, offered a rare glint of sincere emotion in an act full of self-aware showmanship.

Poindexter's patter played up his self-invented image as a soused cynic, but the act never became distractingly arch. His jokes played well, one or two sliding by just enough listeners to make those who caught them feel like insiders; he even did a not-at-all-bad Carol Channing impersonation at one point. Dressed in a tie-less tuxedo and wearing glasses under an impressively tall pompadour, he seemed born to a room as intimate as this one, and to an idiom in which a singer who tries too hard risks becoming the kind of show tune huckster Bill Murray lampooned years ago on Saturday Night Live.

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As dogs and cats cavorted with naked women and ballet dancers in Marcel Vertes' famous paintings-behind-the-band stage, a stretch of mural back near the bar featured a recent addition: Bobby Short, one of the performers most closely associated with the Carlyle, has been painted in among the revelers. If Short's rendition of Cole Porter's "I Happen to Like New York" has become a touchstone for those who know the singer and the Carlyle largely via the films of Woody Allen, Poindexter had a more recent Big Apple theme song to offer: "New York's My Home," a Gordon Jenkins composition associated with Ray Charles, sounded like a Poindexter original here, with its backhanded compliments to attractions in other burgs — San Francisco is "located on an ocean of some size," we are informed — fitting well with his own between-song banter. If the Carlyle invites this ersatz lounge lizard back for a longer engagement, he'd be wise to play it every time he takes the stage.

Set list:

Viper
Bad Boy
New York's My Home
Monkey
My Old Man
Down In Mexico
Do Something For Me
Her Mind Is Gone
Nobody
I Believe In You
I Shot Mr. Lee
Shopping For Clothes
South American Joe
Eight Men Four Women
Pink Champagne
Tattooed Lady
The King Is Gone
Rocket 88
Stay As Sick As You Are

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Ride Your Pony
Hot Hot Hot
Heart of Gold