When the New York Dolls took the stage in Williamsburg last night they were nothing if not dramatic. The anticipation of seeing the Dolls perform can't be what it was a few years ago, when they "reunited" (Johnny Thunders and Jerry Nolan were long dead and Arthur "Killer" Kane played one show with the reincarnated Dolls in London before dying as well -- leaving only David Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain from the classic line-up), but a darkened theater and blaring music that sounded as though it was meant to herald the second coming of Christ, not David Johansen, did the trick.
The Dolls story is entwined with the history of New York punk, and in many ways is its history. The cacophonous combination of Chicago blues on amphetamines, punchy girl-group pop, and glam swagger the Dolls invented was a blueprint for everything to follow: from the three-chord declarations of the Ramones and drugged out bombast of the Sex Pistols -- with whom they shared manager Malcolm McLaren for a time -- to the cross-dressing of Poison to the danger (and teased hair) of early Guns and Roses. And the Dolls 2.0 brought that history to the stage at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Unlike most history lessons, this one made you want to shake your hips and shout.
This is Johansen's band though, where the original Dolls were a messy collective. This line-up has now been together longer than the original band, and they play like it. They own the songs and the stage, though they could never be the same old mess the classic crew was. But then that's not the point. The point is that they are a band and not a nostalgia act. Johansen may look a little a more tanned rested and ready than he did in 2004, when he somehow mystically transformed himself back into the rail-thin, long-haired frontman of the New York Dolls, but his sunglasses stay put and he does a pretty convincing David Johansen for a guy who used to be Buster Poindexter.
"Looking for a Kiss" opened the show and the band played through a collection of songs from its two classic albums and the the two recent records cut by the Dolls 2.0 (the most recent, "Casue I Sez So" produced by old cohort Todd Rungren) and "Jet Boy" closed (new bassist Sami Yaffa was actually once in a Dolls-inspired band named JetBoy). Along the way the band stopped to cover Bo Diddley, tore though "Personality Crisis," brought a horn section on stage for a soul stomp-a-long (with Johansen declaring "We're the Dolls from New York and we like our Philly Soul Chicago-style") and swaggered through a tight set. But the highlight had to be the back-to-back versions of "Trash," with the original played even harder and faster then it was thirty-five years ago segueing into the nouveau slowed down 2009 version that has a gentle reggae lilt. The strange thing is that these new Dolls can turn the classic "Trash" into a lullaby and it can still be so satisfying. But it's fitting for a band that once declared "I need a fix and a kiss."