Review/Photos by JK Clarke
Forty years ago, David Johansen, the long-haired, leather jacket-clad singer/songwriter of the glam rock/proto-punk band The New York Dolls, would likely have been tossed out on his ear had he attempted to enter the lobby of The Carlyle Hotel. Now, as the performer known as Buster Poindexter, he has been asked to return for the second time in less than six months to perform a two-week residency at The Cafe Carlyle, which hosts only the finest and most talented musicians in the world. It’s not just that times have changed (of course they have), but more importantly that Poindexter has honed his style and craft to perfection. He’s become a class act with a voice aged like a premium, smoky caramel bourbon, aged in an old oak cask.
Poindexter’s cool, smooth lounge act is the product of a fascinating and not necessarily deliberate evolution. One of the core ideas behind punk (The New York Dolls were considered a forerunner of the New York punk movement) in the early 1970s) was the deconstruction and annihilation of contemporary rock and pop which had gotten pretty sappy in some instances. But, true art often comes from the reassembling of deconstructed work.
In the late 1980s, Poindexter, along with other artists, began exploring performers (from Belafonte to Sinatra) of the 1950s and 60s, in ironic lounge acts. The throwback performances caught on and Poindexter and the like laid in the groove, getting better and better as the years went on. So now when he takes a song like George Jones’ country classic “The King is Gone,” which struck some as parody when it was released (“Last night I broke the seal on a Jim Beam decanter that looked like Elvis. I soaked the label off a Flintstone jellybean jar”), he soulfully allows us to see the heartbreaking lament that the song really is.
Poindexter’s other, carefully and lovingly selected songs range from fun R&B hit “New York’s My Home,” made famous by Ray Charles, to the rumba beat of “South American Joe,” to Lieber and Stoller’s “Down in Mexico” (made famous by The Coasters in smooth Doo Wop) and make for an eclectic mixed bag of crooner classics from across the spectrum of the music experience.
But his show isn’t just about the accessible, cool songs. He’s a consummate performer—in his signature pompadour and open-necked tuxedo shirt—breaking apart numbers with mugging and cajoling with his tight, rocking four piece band: Brian Koonan (guitar), Clifford Carter (piano), Richard Hammond (upright bass) and Ray Grappone (drums); and telling the audience jokes (and a spot-on Carol Channing imitation) that would make for an auditorium full of belly laughs at Grossinger’s.
Poindexter still represents the leather jacket. But it’s your favorite, most comfortable leather jacket made of the finest leather, which makes you sigh when you put it on. He closed the show with a couple of songs related to his previous work: Otis Redding’s rocking, “Don’t Mess with Cupid,” (which was also released by The NY Dolls) and “Heart of Gold” from his 1981 solo album, two perfect songs for the Valentine’s week performances. In fact, you can’t find a better place to celebrate with your Valentine’s date. Every time he performs it feels like a night for the ages.