Joan Jett - Sunfest, West Palm Beach - May 5

Categories: Concert Review
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Christina Mendenhall 
Better than: Lita Ford ever was.

Just before Joan Jett bounced on to the Tire Kingdom stage in a skintight outfit and black high-tops with red laces, nature had provided an epic warm-up set: Temps dipped from searingly hot to pleasantly balmy, palm trees swayed along the waterfront, and a giant white supermoon skitted up over the horizon. Crowds jammed into the grassy valley of the Meyer Amphitheatre, grilled sausages flavored the air, and $9 beers flowed obediently from taps. Even better, lines for them were short. People seemed to be enjoying some actual cultural Zeitgeist for a hot minute: Life was sweet. 

When the lights went down and the tunes coming over the speakers changed from background music to "Fight for Your Right to Party" -- an homage to Beastie Boy Adam Yauch, who had died the previous day -- people snapped to attention. Jett, who is 53 years old, bopped over to her mic, guitar slung confidently over her shoulder, black shag haircut firmly in place, and clad in a super-tight sleeveless black ensemble (latex? spandex?) that showed off her ridiculously toned arms and tiny little butt. 

"Oh my God, she looks hot," the woman next to me gasped. Somewhere, Madonna sobbed and stabbed herself in the eye with a broken Pilates DVD. 

"I don't give a damn 'bout my reputation," Jett hollered, the guitars sounding appropriately fuzzy, her voice clear and pitch perfect and sounding like it was only 23, albeit with a gruff little edge. She was backed up by four guys: drummer Thommy Price, bassist AC Slade, and lead guitarist Dougie Needles all wore sleeveless black tank tops and black jeans with wallet chains. The guy in the back who looked like Keith Olbermann crossed with Steve Jobs (was that a black turtleneck he was wearing?) and was playing the keyboard, shakers, and tambourine was Kenny Laguna, who produced Jett's mega-hit "I Love Rock N' Roll" as well as "I Want Candy" by Bow Wow Wow and a couple of Jonathan Richman albums. He lives in Delray Beach. 
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Christina Mendenhall 
Joan Jett inhabits a sweet spot on the spectrum of musical success: Everybody knows her, but her songs rarely get played on radio. She's not often mentioned as anyone's number-one favorite artist, but no one will deny that she is raddest. The secret to her success is her songs' delicious singability, crossed with a punky sheen. Jett took supersimple, three-chord, '50s-inspired tunes, dusted them with a little 1960s feminist boldness, and crawled out her bedroom window in the 1970s, where she picked up a punk/glam aesthetic inspired by the Ramones and Bowie. She's always had a punky edge but has been never safety-pin-through-the upper-lip dangerous; she's always been awesome but never quite sexy. Underneath all that eyeliner is an artist who has never changed with trends, done a concept album, asked Lil Wayne to guest on a track, or overexposed herself on a reality show. Rarer every day.

Given the broad appeal of her tunes and the mixed crowd that SunFest naturally draws, it's no surprise that the audience ranged from 17-year-old Kristen Stewart look-alikes to beer-bellied dudes who looked like they just stepped off the fishing boat. Beach balls got tossed. Someone fired up a joint. One fan waved a vinyl record in the air.  

Jett followed "Bad Reputation" with "Cherry Bomb," her hit from her days in teenaged girl group the Runaways, then paused to ask "How ya doin', South Florida?" before playing "Light of Day," the title song from the 1987 movie she starred in with Michael J. Fox. 

Energy dipped during that song, but the intensity kicked back up when the band shifted into a familiar chant: "Yeahhhh, oh yeahhhh, oh yeahhhh..." and the band goaded the audience to join in on a singalong/handclap. Jett said, "Kick my ass! Kick it hard! I gotta know... Do you wanna touch me?" and with that, she launched into perhaps the greatest song about sexual frustration of all time. 

She followed that with "Victim of Circumstance" and then another Runaways song, "You Drive Me Wild," which Jett said was "the first song I ever wrote. Pretty dirty mind for a 16-year-old there!"  Lyrics: "Don't hold off do it, I need your lovin'/I'm getting so hot I'm cooking like an oven." (The opening crunchy guitar riff sounds just like Marilyn Manson's "Beautiful People," which came 20 years later.) 
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Christina Mendenhall 
From there, songs dipped into less-familiar territory, but Jett's commentary got slightly more interesting. Rumors abound that she's gay, but in interviews, she typically avoids discussing her sexuality.  She played coy, introducing "The French Song" by saying "Love between two people can be a beautiful thing, but love between three people can be an even more beautiful thing... especialy if one of them is me."  (Lyrics: "I know what I am/I am what I am."

From there, the band burned through "Love Is Pain," "TMI" (for this one, a roadie brought out a music stand and Jett announced that she gets stage fright paying new songs), "Hard to Grow Up," "Naked," and "Fake Friends." When they played "Reality Mentality" and, without any warning, segued from its closing notes right into "I Love Rock N' Roll," people sprung up out of their lawn chairs, flung themselves out of porto-potty doors, and levitated above their wheelchairs to catch it. 

Next up: crowd-pleasers "Crimson & Clover" and "I Hate Myself for Loving You," followed by "Little Liar" and "AC/DC (a song that suggests bisexuality) before Jett introduced her band members. They finished with Sly & the Family Stone's "Everyday People" -- a song that references discrimination ("The blue ones who can't accept/The green ones for living with/The black ones tryin' to be a skinny one") and includes a few perfect-for-Jett '50s-style "ooh sha sha"s and a "scooby ooby dooby." 

Overheard: "Remember when it was only a dime you had to put in the jukebox? Now it's $5 and you get a free song." 

And: "She's like all of Kiss in five-foot-two."

Personal bias: Jett had an album called Good Music that was a commercial flop, but I played my record until the grooves wore out.

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1 comments
John Springer
John Springer

It was an awesome show!  Excellent review, better than I could ever put it into words.  Made me relive the performance.  Thank YOU!!!

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