If few people thought that the New York Dolls could make the raging music they made throughout the '70s, even fewer thought they'd make it into the 21st century alive.
The Dolls were punk's lords of decadence before there was a name for such shambolic noise and bad attitude. Their recklessly careening rock was touched by glam kitsch, girl-group camp, dark blues, and lofty R&B. And not all of the Dolls survived - two were claimed by illness, two by drugs.
But singer/lyricist David Johansen and rhythm guitarist/harmony vocalist Syl Sylvain, who reunited in 2004, matured the Dolls' sloppy, menacing sound into something surprisingly sharp and refined yet rough-hewn. They spun their past into something vital and very present when they packed the Trocadero on Thursday.
It might have been a shock to hear them approach newer tracks like "We're All in Love" as soft dream-pop with glossy harmonies, or the primarily acoustic "My World" with its epic, psychedelic chords on display. Yet it worked.
When Sylvain sang a strangely sweet version of Johnny Thunders' "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory," followed by Johansen's segue into a lovely "Lonely Planet Boy" it all made sense: The Dolls had always been pussycats. Their claws just needed a manicure.
Johansen, with hair shorn to a shag with sideburns, wide-frame glasses, and a tennis shirt (a far cry from his glittery-feathered days), looked like Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords. But he yowled and sounded as Howlin' Wolfish as ever as he tucked into Sylvain's power-riffing "Jet Boy" and the bluesy rumba of "Private World."
Guitarist Steve Conte and other newly minted Dolls knew the band had to be messy to be effective. A dub-ska version of "Trash" and a schmaltzy "Stranded in the Jungle" proved that.
Among the openers, the garage R&B octet Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, with its rapid-fire horn section, appealed to the Dolls' soul-struck fans, while the four guys of Philly's Haley were there for the glam-metal kids, with their hearts on their sleeves and guy-liner in their pockets.