April 28, 2016
There are rumors going around that this might be Iggy Pop’s last full tour, that his still-sleek, leonine body can’t handle the abuse when he throws himself around the stage like a hapless rag doll. Perhaps the 69-year-old legend intended to take it easy at the Greek Theatre, but those old animal instincts soon took over, and Iggy couldn’t help spontaneously diving headlong into his adoring crowd at least a half dozen times Thursday night.
If this really was James Osterberg’s last live performance in Los Angeles — aka Kill City, the place that has long fascinated and repulsed him in seemingly equal measures — it was a powerful, emotionally moving farewell. In several key ways, the concert was strikingly different from his dozens of previous local appearances over the past four decades.
Iggy has always been a uniquely charismatic vocalist, from his early days with The Stooges, when his raw, feral howling set the template for literally thousands of punk imitators, and throughout his extensive solo career, as he developed his famously moody, low baritone. But he’s also been an emotional, impatient singer — adept at improvising lyrics and melodies, but sometimes so worked up that his vocals fly off into the wrong register.
Thursday night, however, his singing was more controlled and focused than ever. It’s not that Iggy didn’t allow himself to go wild when needed, but he maintained an underlying cool and discipline that kept him firmly anchored to the moment. He relied a lot on that late-night baritone, utilizing all 50 shades of his increasingly nuanced cabaret crooning.
The current tour also marks the first time that Iggy isn’t performing any of his Stooges classics. In a way, that’s actually a relief. Although Iggy has toured and recorded with many great guitarists in the past — including The Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones, original Damned guitarist Brian James, Slash, Mumps guitarist Rob Duprey, Eric Schermerhorn and longtime David Bowie sideman Carlos Alomar — none of these musicians could ever truly replicate the anarchic intensity of original Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton and his incendiary replacement, James Williamson.
Iggy spent much of the past decade reclaiming his Stooges legacy by fronting fully satisfying live reunions of his old band’s two major incarnations, thereby obviating the need for any future remakes by hired-gun ringers. Because Iggy was so busy with The Stooges — at least until the deaths of Ron Asheton and his drummer-brother Scott Asheton in recent years — the Greek Theatre concert marked the first time the singer had performed a set of his solo material locally since October 1999, when he landed at the El Rey Theatre on the tour for Avenue B.
One might expect that Iggy, newly freed from his Stooges obligations, would draw freely from his 17 solo studio albums and perhaps trot out such popular favorites as “Five Foot One,” “Bang Bang,” “Candy” and “Real Wild Child (Wild One).” But so far on this tour, he and his five-piece band are playing the same 22-song set list every night. With the exception of the soundtrack-album obscurity “Repo Man,” all the songs are pulled from just three of his records — his two still-astonishing 1977 albums with Bowie, The Idiot and Lust for Life, and his intriguing new collaboration with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Post Pop Depression.
For the recording, Homme assembled Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders and Queens/Dead Weather multi-instrumentalist Dean Fertita, and they’ve been augmented on the tour by bassist Matt Sweeney and guitarist-keyboardist Troy Van Leeuwen (QOTSA, Sweethead). The band wore matching burgundy suits as they strode onstage at the Greek. Helders punched out the rambunctious opening beats to the set opener, “Lust for Life,” with Iggy sprinting onstage dramatically in a reckless, mad dash a few moments later.
Shirtless and wearing a black jacket over his tanned, scarred torso, Iggy was initially a little wobbly before his vocals warmed up in the chilly night air. He switched to his trademark low crooning — a granite, graveyard rumble — on the next song, “Sister Midnight.” The group was generally meticulously faithful to the original arrangements on the songs Iggy co-wrote with Bowie, although Homme would sometimes add new embellishments, such as mesmerizing stutter strumming near the end of “Midnight” as Iggy restlessly intoned, “What can I do about my fucking dreams?”
“Fucking thanks for fucking coming! Fuck! Hi!” Iggy cheerily greeted the capacity crowd, shucking off his jacket and going bare-chested for the rest of the night. With its celestial keyboard grandeur and thick dub bass, “American Valhalla” was the first of the Post Pop songs of the evening, followed by the seedily menacing leather-fetish oldie “Sixteen,” in which Iggy’s croon turned to a sneer to match the snarling guitars.
Iggy wandered into the audience for the first time a few tunes later on a throbbing version of “Funtime,” ending up halfway into the first section, looking like a faith healer mobbed by his fanatical congregation. “It’s a beautiful place, and a pretty swanky neighborhood too,” Iggy marveled about the Greek. He admitted that he’s been ambivalent about Hollywood in the past before conceding that he’s also impressed that it’s such “a hard-working town.” He slipped back into an assured croon as the band locked tightly into the brightly colorful, Television-style guitar flurries of “Sunday,” which rocked harder than the Post Pop version.
“Hi, expensive people,” Iggy teased the folks in the orchestra seats. “Hello, poor people,” he added for the fans standing in the cheaper sections, exhorting them to rush the stage and wake up the stodgier listeners up front. He grandly introduced “German Days” as “a fucking robotic Eurosong with Teutonic/Slavic overtones” before settling into a supremely majestic variation of his crooning.
“Mass Production,” from The Idiot, was an emotionally convulsive highlight, as Iggy’s desperately vulnerable romantic pleas were contrasted by the baleful, mechanized squalor and assembly-line rhythms of the proto-industrial epic, with Homme’s guitar swooping in ominously like a vulture. Iggy sat on a stool at first for the dark cabaret idyll “Nightclubbing,” segueing into a more sotto voce croon, until Homme’s first rabid guitar solo brought the singer back to his feet. By the time Homme peeled out his second solo, Iggy was already humping the PA and wall at far stage right.
“Hey, if I was hitchhiking, would you motherfuckers pick me up?” Iggy inquired to launch a swinging take on “The Passenger,” which downshifted near the end into a funky, cool-blue groove that was sublimely enchanting. The set-closing “China Girl” was another major thrill. Bowie liked the song so much that he later recorded his own hit remake, but Iggy’s original 1977 version is far superior, if only because the lyrics and melody are better suited for Pop’s unrestrained passion than the Thin White Duke’s more reserved delivery. The song’s narrator gets all worked up about his demented plans for world domination before his girlfriend brings him back down to Earth with a single, soothing phrase. When Pop wailed the heart-catching line, “It’s in the white of my eyes,” his voice broke into a thousand pieces in a chillingly searing primal scream that was drowned further in a deep well of watery reverb. The version was shockingly personal yet still beautiful, crowned by Homme’s and Fertita’s weepy cascades of descending guitar lines.
“I’ll show you my undies,” Iggy teased, quickly pulling down his black pants and flashing his red underwear, after the group returned for a seven-song encore. His voice was appropriately regal as it sliced through the spider-web latticework of “Break Into Your Heart.” Iggy attempted to climb into the stage-right bleachers during “Fall in Love With Me,” which was Pop’s luridly charming equivalent to his mid-’70s peers Captain & Tennille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.” The band cranked out a sinisterly rocking take on the rarely performed “Repo Man,” before closing with such disparately varied numbers as the shadowy love song “Baby,” the manic mood swings of “Paraguay” and the rousing last song of the night, “Success,” which found Pop at his poppiest as he nailed a soulful falsetto.
“I’m summing up this role. I’m hoping to survive the experience
As the group took its bows, Iggy quickly autographed a fan’s LP and waved goodbye. “You made me happy,” he told the crowd, which had been standing on its feet for the entire 2½-hour show. Smog’s Bill Callahan was a late addition as the opening performer, although most of the audience, even those who arrived an hour early, missed his set, as the venue’s staff — just a few shows into their first season in nearly 40 years under new management — appeared disorganized and overwhelmed by the unusually long lines.
Is this really Iggy Pop’s last tour? The singer hinted as much during a discussion about the new album with Josh Homme at the Grammy Museum on Wednesday night. “I’m summing up this role. I’m hoping to survive the experience,” he told the small crowd of about 200 people. Iggy said that he wants to continue pursuing collaborations with interesting musicians like Homme, but added that he is going to “slow down” from heavy touring.
“There’s less and less feeling allowed” in popular music these days, Iggy opined. He wasn’t intending to do another album until he encountered Homme by chance at a “dubious award ceremony” in England for Kerrang! magazine. “He was the only one there not dressed in a satanic space costume,” Iggy said. Even though he was impressed that Queens of the Stone Age isn’t a generic hard-rock band limited by genre definitions, he still wasn’t sure at first if he wanted to commit to the project. “How much of my life am I going to wreck to get my sex life back?”
Homme also had to get to know Iggy better, since both songwriters wanted to work together in person and have shared common experiences before heading into the recording studio. The two bonded over such interests as German culture and the poetry of Walt Whitman, but there was still an initial process where Homme said he had to assess “the wingspan of that human” as they attempted to create a paradoxical “introspective rock record.” The project began, Homme said, when Iggy sent him some rough ideas, “a dossier, the first step in the vulnerability” required to create something truly personal and markedly different from Pop’s past work.
“There’s consonants and vowels, and you shove them all together,” Homme said in an attempt to demystify the act of songwriting. But he also learned from Iggy how to be more spontaneous and receptive to initial impulses instead of waiting around for the perfect lyric to arrive. “‘You put something terrible [in the lyrics], and the music finds its way in,’” Homme said, quoting Iggy’s advice.
Iggy also briefly discussed his late pal Bowie and his time with The Stooges. “It was David Bowie who got me to drop the sneering and use the crooning voice instead,” Iggy explained. He also shed some light on what it was like when The Stooges recorded the Raw Power album with Bowie. Alluding to the chaotic, druggy recording sessions and the album’s savagely new form of metallic punk, he said he often wondered, “Is it a song or a problem?” — a question that summarizes the tender and violent dichotomies in all of Iggy’s music.