God bless the B-52s. Each member is in their 50s and 60s and still going at it as if they’re in their 20s. Front man Fred Schneider (frequently spotted on the 1 train), beach blond Cindy Wilson, guitarist Keith Stickland (who has aged the best, looks 30) and lone maraca player/vocalist/goddess Kate Pierson make up the original party band from Athens, Ga. I’ve seen them four or five times over the years, but tonight’s show was the best of them all. The last time I saw them was last summer on Governor’s Island in New York harbor when a monsoon cut their gig short so this year they played safely indoors at my favorite venue in the city: Highline Ballroom.
Kicking off the night was the surprising “Wig,” from their 1987 album, Bouncing Off the Satellites. “Cindy’s got a wig! We all got wigs on!” perfectly set the tone for the night. I love that they started with this song because it represents the tenacity of the B-52s. Released just before their breakthrough Cosmic Thing album, Bouncing was their first record after guitarist and Cindy’s sibling Ricky Wilson tragically died of AIDS. I always think of him when I hear this song. It’s always a nice sentiment.
Through their 90-minute set, they played a wide mix of songs ranging from their 1979 debut to their last album of original work, 2008’s Funplex. Off the severely under-rated Funplex they played “Love in the Year 3000,” “Ultraviolet,” “Dancing Now,” the title track “on a diet pill” with Cindy’s “I’m your daytime waitress at the Taco Tiki Hut. I’m you’re daytime waitress, here’s your f-ing 7-Up!” and my favorite, Athens-inspired “Hot Corner,” with Fred commanding Kate to do a “white hot shimmy in a lurex gown.”
But the best material is their older material. And fortunately for me and the crowd at Highline, we got to see them perform their best, at their best: “Private Idaho” and “Mesopotamia” came first and then a few songs off their 1989 hit album Cosmic Thing, including “Channel Z” and “Roam.” I could not have been happier to finally hear them sing “Deadbeat Club.” I have always loved this song, but have never heard them sing it live. “Let’s go crash that party down in Normaltown tonight. Then we’ll go skinny-dippin’ in the moonlight. Were were wild girls, walkin’ down the street. Wild girls and boys going out for a big time.” “Cosmic Thing” was great too and a song that I have forgotten. No longer… I put it on my iPod this morning. There’s nothing better than Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson singing “honeybun!” in unison. “Shake your honey bun!”
The highlight of the evening was Cindy’s solo on “Give Me Back My Man” from the 1980 album Wild Planet. I’ve always liked Cindy, but I’ve been drawn to Kate in the past, and for good reason. But tonight Cindy seemed to be in her element, having the time of her life. She killed on this song. “I’ll give you fish, I’ll give you candy, I’ll give you everything I have in my hand. Give me, give back my man.” Amen, sister. The crowd responded with a prolonged applause, nearly causing Wilson to shed a tear. Moments like these are why I haunt music venues like this… glimpses of magic. And don’t think it was glitter on the highway that made magic, it was her spirit.
In the end, they played their best known song, “Love Shack,” a staple from my freshmen year in college, and an encore featuring two songs, Kate’s outer space killer shrills on “Planet Claire” and the party anthem of all time, “Rock Lobster.” I’m especially fond of the animal sounds Cindy and Kate have a to muster when Fred tells them to. My favorite is Cindy’s dolphin call. Hilarious.
A lot of my friends saw Lady Gaga at MSG last night, and I wondered if she has ever seen the B-52s live. I’m glad I made the decision to put Gaga off by a few nights to see the originals who brought the weird, quirky and obtuse to pop music coupled with the talent, hooks and heart. I bet Gaga could learn a lot from the B-52s. Think she’ll be around when she’s 60 and playing Highline? Let’s hope so.