Michael Monroe at Gramercy Theater 2/19/2016
by Alex Markwith
Photo: Ville Juurikkala
Headlining on a U.S. Tour in support of their new album BLACKOUT STATES, Michael Monroe made a stop at New York City’s Gramercy Theater last Friday night. Though the stage name Michael Monroe sounds decidedly American, and indeed the namesake frontman lived in New York for a time beginning in 1985, Michael Monroe was born Matti Fagerholm, in Finland, from where two current bandmates, bassist Sami Yaffa and drummer Karl Rockfist, also hail.
Michael Monroe, the singer, rose to fame through the band Hanoi Rocks, a pioneering act in glam rock that disbanded following an infamous incident involving Motley Crue’s Vince Neel which resulted in the death of of the bassist, Nicholas “Razzle” Dingley. Despite this, and despite, perhaps fortuitously, never achieving the status of their more popular contemporaries, Michael Monroe, the band, lead by Michael Monroe, the singer, endures today and is rightly afforded its cult status.
Hardcore Superstar, Photo:Meeri Koskialho
Four bands were on the bill that night. Black Wall (virtually unknown, even to YouTube) opened the night with a delicious, sludgy, doomy half hour set, followed by the surprisingly popular Kore Rozzik, who riffed in the manner of Pantera but “WALK”ed, and talked, with an air of Nickelback. Swedish support band Hardcore Superstar appeared next (as a great relief), hitting the ball closer to the park of what was to follow.
Sami Yaffa and Michael Monroe, Photo:Meeri Koskialho
For the uninitiated, the first reaction to a Google search of Michael Monroe might be “what a look!” And, indeed, the band keeps a foot in the field of its glammy roots. Monroe appeared on stage with teased platinum blonde hair and flame-embroidered bell bottoms. But the set did well to remind us of a point oft-overlooked: the roots of this music, stylistically and lyrically, are punk.
The band opened with two songs off their new album, “This Ain’t No Love Song” and “Old King’s Road”. By this point the crowd had filtered in. The ground and ambiance set, MM continued with “Trick of the Wrist” and “’78” before diving into their anthem “Ballad of the Lower East Side”.
Pulled from their album SENSORY OVERDRIVE, recorded in 2013, “Ballad of the Lower East Side” speaks of a time that this reviewer, and it seems many other millenials in New York, yearn for: when rents were cheap and things weren’t quite so rosy. “Things are different today, back in New York” declares the first lyric, and later, “Life was art on every corner, now there’s so much less”.
While some of the crowd had undoubtedly endured the era romanticized by this ballad, much of the audience had not. And yet, this song was a highlight of the evening. Finally, everyone in the room could agree!
Later came two picks from the oeuvre of Michael Monroe’s 1990s side project Demolition 23. The second of these, “Hammersmith Palais” (the title of which is a reference to a track by The Clash), in particular rephrased the call to action with lyrics such as “New York City’s boring since the punks all ran away/ Tokyo’s gone techno, and Berlin’s goin’ crazy/ Ain’t had no fun since Hammersmith Palais”.
It is not surprising that these overt allusions to punk did well to engage a full house with multiple generations in attendance. But it is surprising that the ideas brought up last weekend at Gramercy Theater are trending at this moment in New York, outside of select concert halls. The biggest budget example here is the pilot of the HBO series “Vinyl”, which premiered last week and is set in New York about a decade before Hanoi Rocks was formed. A New York Dolls concert serves as a key framing device for the plot, which focuses heavily on the relationship between punk and glam in the 1970s. Two current Michael Monroe members, Steve Conte and Sami Yaffa, are certified alumni of the New York Dolls, a genre-bender par excellence at the punk-glam intersection. Michael Monroe proved last week that they are indebted in different ways to both sides of this divide, but have found their own authentic form of expression in territory that, though lightly populated, remains largely uncharted.
Amid loud cheers, MM played “Got Blood?”, “Goin’ Down with the Ship”, and “Tragedy”, followed by “Up and Around the Bend”, which was originally recorded by Creedence Clearwater Revival but later covered by Hanoi Rocks. The song’s universally recognized refrain, urging listeners to “COME ON AND RIDE THE WIND!” brought more fanfare, and segued beautifully into “Dead, Jail, or Rock N’ Roll”, which ensured the insistence of an encore.
The encore set consisted of six songs. First were covers of The Damned’s “Love Song” and “Machine Gun Etiquette”, followed by Dead Boys’ “Ain’t Nothin’ to Do”. These choices nodded to the band’s aforementioned punk roots. But for those of us who had, admittedly, not listened to Michael Monroe’s latest album prior to Friday evening, the next song was a surprise. Titled, “Under the Northern Lights”, the song was, according to Mr. Monroe, written by Dee Dee Ramone. Mr. Ramone offered it to Mr. Monroe in 1991 because he was from Finland and the only one who could do it justice. “Under the Northern Lights”, an eight and a half minute ballad, garnered much fanfare with its instrumental sections and the chorus’s hooky delivery of the title.
Michael Monroe brought their set to a satisfying close with another Hanoi Rocks song, “Malibu Beach Nightmare”, where the singer doubles on saxophone in an eclectic burst of an anthem that, in a manner similar to much of the Dolls’ output, somehow works.