Concert Reviews

Billy Idol at Massey Hall

Even if you walked into Massey Hall on Wednesday night not knowing much about the headlining act, you left knowing one thing: Billy Idol is a crowd pleaser. Of course, you’d have been hard pressed to find someone in the sold out Toronto crowd who wasn’t at least somewhat familiar with Idol’s more popular back catalogue offerings. The man is, after all, something of an iconic figure in the world of 70’s punk and 80’s glam rock. 

We could talk about the history of the English musician, but there hardly seems a point at this stage. From the controversies to the musical legacy to the in-your-face sexuality and leather pants, if you’re not already familiar with Idol as a figure (or at the very least his bleached blonde spiky hairdo) and his music itself, you’ve got some pop culture to consume – and stat.

Opening the night was indie rock band BRONCHO. While a shout out to their Dine Alone Records label brought on a smattering of cheers thanks to its local base, the Oklahoma band came off otherwise slightly reserved in their performance. With two albums to their credit, the band is obviously competent and has a complete sound – jittery walls of guitar notes matched to more lazily delivered vocals – but it goes to show the impact a venue and stage can have on a performance. 

Give the band a sweaty nightclub with a crowd closer to their age and you can bet they’d be a lot of fun. Opening for Billy Idol, they did well to hype up to the night’s main draw but probably didn’t attract too many new fans to the BRONCHO camp… But maybe that’s just because the Idol fans have all pitched their Billy for Prime Minister tents already.

Idol, to his credit, seems more than capable of carrying the banner of rock icon for at least another decade. The 59-year-old was all pomp and vigour, playing well to his adoring crowd and interacting with them throughout the night. Whether he was leaning into the front row to fist bump an audience member’s outstretched hand or flinging signed paper plates – thanking the lucky recipient for attending the night’s show – into the crowd, Idol was well aware of what the audience wanted: him. 

When four songs in he started up the Generation X hit “Dancing With Myself”, it wasn’t a surprise the entire crowd was joining him on their feet – they had all been standing as soon as Idol hit the stage promptly at 9 pm. Instead, the surprise came with just how much energy Idol was able to fling back, leading the audience through punk rock calisthenics as he shouted a bridge of “sweat!” 

Yes, he perhaps faulted a bit in his breath – sounding wheezy during his banter and giving long-time guitarist Steve Stevens plenty of solo opportunities to compensate – but Idol was far from, well, idle. When he wasn’t singing into the microphone, he’d strap it in a holster on his belt, run around the stage, and egg on his five-piece backing band with exaggerated hand gestures aplenty.

“Save Me Now”, from Idol’s seventh studio album – 2015’s Kings & Queens of the Underground – wasn’t particularly a strong vocal point, but it did wonders for energy, Stevens bringing in strong ending guitar solo to match an equally impressive clap-along bridge that felt and sound like gospel.

Stevens also worked in some of his noted Spanish-influenced guitar work with a solo that had his fingers flying across the fret board. Following that, he switched gears entirely – joining the rest of the band for 1978’s “King Rocker”, a song more focused on jungle beats and aggressive rockabilly. Meanwhile, in bass territory, Stephen McGrath held his ground with the classic rock meets 80’s punk of “Whiskey and Pills”, the closing track on Idol’s latest effort.

Oddly, it was Idol’s guitar playing that was the most jilting thing during the night. Give Idol a microphone and he’s flying (or at least making fantastic use of the stage space). Give him a guitar and he becomes anchored to a position. It was like watching a large animal in a zoo: still impressive to witness, but nowhere close to where he should be or his natural comfort zone. Songs such as “Sweet Sixteen” and a cover of The Doors’ “L.A. Woman” suffered as a result.

He brought the energy back with a hits-packed final three songs that included “Rebel Yell” and an encore of “White Wedding” and “Mony Mony”. He addressed his adoring crowd out of breath but sincerely, shouting “Thank you, Toronto! Thank you for making my life so fucking great!” and ultimately ending with an introduction of his band and a promise to see everyone next year. 

As the crowd filed out clutching signed paraphernalia and Billy Idol t-shirts, you can already bet most of the Massey Hall crowd are counting down the days until they’re seeing the crowd pleaser once again. There’s a reason Billy Idol still sells out venues: he puts on a damn entertaining show, ego and all.

Thanks to Live Nation Ontario for media access.

About author

Former Music Editor & Concert Photographer at Live in Limbo. Sarah was born in Toronto. She's worked at some places that you've heard of (like NXNE) and some that you haven't. She is an Academy Delegate at the JUNOs (CARAS). You can usually find Sarah at a concert, on Twitter @beets, or on Instagram @sarahrix. She also likes dogs and cheeseburgers.