“It’s nice to bring it down just for a second,” Billy Idol says as he straps on an acoustic guitar about midway through his set at Biloxi’s IP Casino. “It really does have a story,” he continues as he plays a few gentle opening chords to “Sweet Sixteen” from his 1986 Top 10 album, Whiplash Smile. Amid the frenzy that Idol and his band had just spent the last seven songs creating, it was a moment of delicacy, a chance for the sneer to take a breather before hopping back into full steam ahead mode, coming to a lovely end with guitar players Steve Stevens and Billy Morrison and bass player Stephen McGrath joining Idol at the front of the stage. It is an unexpected moment for those in the audience who have kept his more up-tempo anthems rotating on their iPods for all these years. Billy Idol knows how to do a ballad this gentle? Yes, he does know how to engage people without growling in their faces.
Engaging people is what Idol does best. He is constantly feeding them pieces of himself, from eye contact to bumping fists to handing out pre-autographed setlists, he is all about sharing himself with the ones who are here with him. He sings directly to them, sometimes so close to a face his sweat becomes theirs, and he doesn’t have to ask twice for them to yell, wave their hands in the air, jump up and down. Just because he has always projected an image of snarling tough guy, his heart is most definitely on his sleeve for his fans.
It is something that his longtime guitar sidekick Steve Stevens also does, crouching down low at the lip of the stage to finish out a solo or doing the occasional hand slap. With many of his song intros sprinkled with a Spanish influence, Stevens adds a texture to his fretwork, soul to a song that could spiral out of control with too much bite. “I literally stopped playing electric guitar for about a year and just played flamenco style guitar,” Stevens told me in a 2014 interview. “That was something I had started when I was a kid.” And that spirit shows up in much of his live music [check out his solo album Flamenco A Go-Go for more].
But Stevens also knows that making a song memorable can also stem from the chords he plays. “Play something people can remember. That’s a thing a lot of guitar players don’t always remember when they do the solo,” Stevens explained. “And a guitar solo is an opportunity for the guitar player to tell his side of the stories. It’s a way of breathing through your instrument when you play a solo.” How many Idol songs can you count that have that memorable guitar hook: “Rebel Yell,” “White Wedding,” “Flesh For Fantasy,” “Cradle Of Love.” Even on songs from Idol’s most recent album, Kings & Queens Of The Underground, Stevens continues to shine on “Postcards From The Past” and “Whiskey & Pills,” which also brings out the spirit of rhythm guitarist Morrison and bassist McGrath, and takes off at breakneck speed, conjuring up some Generation X attitude.
But it is still the hits that get the fans all riled up. “Steve, show them what a hit song sounds like,” Idol says to Stevens before launching into “White Wedding.” Add to that “Rebel Yell,” “Eyes Without A Face,” “Cradle Of Love,” “Flesh For Fantasy,” “Dancing With Myself” and a kick ass show ending “Mony Mony.”
Other Stevens highlights included his electrifying solo, adding in snippets of “Roundabout,” “Over The Hills & Far Away” and “Stairway To Heaven” to an already chilling composition; playing behind his head and with his teeth on “Blue Highway;” and his intro to “Flesh For Fantasy.” And you have to give a tremendous amount of credit to Morrison, McGrath, drummer Erik Eldenius and keyboardist Paul Trudeau. What an insanely talented group of musicians they are, providing a great foundation, extra attitude and heavy duty rocking out rhythms.
With a face (and hair) made for nonstop MTV rotation back in it’s heyday, Idol could have turned into a farce of his former self, roaming the country singing sloppy versions of his songs. Instead, he has made his legacy a throne, embracing the fun, the attitude and the power of the songs themselves and breathing new life into them every time he hits a lighted stage. Playing in Biloxi in September of 2015 was no exception. Just ask the sold out crowd that walked out looking happier than when they walked in.