by JK Clarke
Somewhere in the middle of his opening night set at the Café Carlyle on Tuesday night, Buster Poindexter made a crack about the quality of his performance and having sold his talent to the devil . . . “not that there are any critics here tonight.” It was part of a bit, one in which he goes on to make a joke about critics being the servicemen who go into the battlefield at the end of the day and shoot all the wounded. But despite it being cloaked in humor, there was a little disappointment in his voice. Something was off. He felt it and some in the audience may have felt it, too. It hung in the air throughout the night and culminated in an abridged performance, one that left out the big hits, his three final encore songs. But Poindexter should be re-assured: a good reviewer sees past the off-night and recognizes the genius of a beautifully constructed set, a strong band, and one of the best club performers of his generation. The better of us, as the take-it-or-leave-it, no-budget marketing arm of an artist’s PR agency, only waste our bullets on the potentially dangerous of the wounded.
Innumerable things can lead to an “off” night, but in this instance I blame the crowd. As any performer will tell you, sometimes an audience is just lousy. Stand-up comics can go from club to club on a given night, perform the same set and absolutely kill in one venue and get crickets in another. There’s no explaining it. Tuesday night the Café Carlyle was one those inexplicable rooms, with a mix of people who (in addition to those who were excited to see Buster) seemed disconnected and those who don’t know how to behave in public. From the couple who talked non-stop during the performance, it being mere foreplay; to the loudmouth, frat-boy types who heckled and thought the little comments they shouted out between songs either added value or were hilarious (they were neither). Poindexter finally had enough and turned on one who’d made a strangely irrelevant comment and said, “Shut up, Leonard,” which seemed to cork the offender . . . for a while, at least. But, the mood was definitely soured, and not helped by a number of patrons who appeared to be entitled, jet-lagged hotel guests in town for the UN sessions, sadly unaware of the great man on the stage.
The good news, however, is that the night was merely an aberration. David Johansen, the man behind the Buster Poindexter persona, is a consummate professional, a golden-voiced singer and a riveting performer. This, his third residency in a year at the Café Carlyle, no longer seems strange. Where once to have an early 70s proto-punk and 80s ironic lounge performer play this refined room (home to the greatest of American crooners and Woody Allen’s Monday night jam spot) seemed daring, it now feels natural. And the thing about what’s brought to the table is that he curates a varied selection of outstanding songs: a reimagining of numbers that are very familiar to us paired with songs most of us probably haven’t heard before. Case in point, he opens with a re-working of Eric Burden and the Animals’ 60s rock hit, “Club A Go-Go,” strips away the frantic and too-familiar guitar line, and turns it into a powerful up-tempo, but more controlled number. From there he moves to the very much neglected Slim Gaillard “Yip Roc Heresy” vocalese (a close cousin of scat) jam. Fans of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road will recognize Gaillard as the “orooni”-muttering, bourbon-swilling, sad-eyed pianist who wows Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in a San Francisco club in the late 1940s. Hearing Poindexter’s flawless cover of this unique number is a fine way to close that loop for those who know the book and not the music. And Poindexter slides right into the upbeat, Cab Calloway, “Kicking the Gong Around” with an excited tempo and call and repeat vocals. But he doesn’t stay in the genre, moving into songs made for Broadway, like McHugh and Loesser’s “Murder, He Says,” done less theatrical and more melodic, far more appropriate for the setting. As he said in a recent interview with Theater Pizzazz’s Cooper Lawrence, when Johansen plays as Buster, it “affords [him] the opportunity to sing anything [he] want[s].” And so he does, which is what makes his set so unique and compelling.
In between songs Poindexter—still with trademark pompadour, thick-framed glasses, open, tie-less tux shirt and red handkerchief—stayed with the deliberately schmaltzy patter and cymbal-crash jokes that define his performances. He kids with his bandmates, but gives them a time to shine, particularly in Ahmet Ertegün’s boogie-woogie “Mess Around” (made famous by Ray Charles), with solos by bass player Richard Hammond and the one new addition to the band, Brian Mitchell, on both piano and accordion (a new wrinkle this time around). The rest of the band—Brian Konnin on guitar and the always amusing Ray Grappone on drums—is as tight and professional as ever.
The Café Carlyle has established itself over the years as a first rate room where one can see simply the best singers and musicians in the world in an intimate and elegant setting. It should be treated as such. As reverent as one is for the food, wine and service there, so one should be for the elevated class of performer they provide. For the audience to treat a singer as just another performer, or worse yet, to behave in the venue as they would in a dive bar, is simply inexcusable. But one night does not a residency make, and the forthcoming shows promise to be nights that those in attendance will never forget.
*Photos by David Andrako