NEW YORK -- Two drag queens took the stage at Town Hall Tuesday night to announce the return, after 17 years, of one of the city's most famous rock exports -- Blondie.
"I feel as if I'm in a dream, coming out of a trance," one queen said as she introduced the recently re-formed punk/pop group.
Just then, the diminutive, bleached-blonde singer, wearing a leather jacket and dark sunglasses, strutted onstage to the microphone. Over the shrieks of devoted fans, she led her band on adrenalized songs she made famous more than 20 years ago.
"When I met you in the restaurant," was all Deborah Harry had to sing before the 1,200 people packed into the small concert hall were on their feet, dancing.
The song was "Dreaming," from Blondie's 1979 LP Eat to the Beat, and the reunited group -- who released a new album, No Exit, Tuesday -- seemed thrilled to be re-creating their classic sound before a live audience. Harry shook her hips more wildly than the average 53-year-old, and original keyboardist Jimmy Destri mouthed every word she sang.
Four of the six members of the band's classic line-up are in the revamped edition. In addition to Harry and Destri, Harry's main musical collaborator -- and ex-boyfriend -- Chris Stein was there on guitar, along with another founding member, drummer Clem Burke.
Absent were bassist Nigel Harrison and lead guitarist Frank Infante, who weren't invited to the reunion; they've been replaced by younger musicians -- Paul Carbonara on lead guitar and Leigh Foxx on bass, both of whom appear on No Exit.
But there were enough key ingredients to make the group work.
If the look of the band many fans remember was slightly off, the sound was right on -- and that in itself was something to be thankful for. Though Blondie sold millions of records around the world with their bouncy blend of punk rock and '60s girl-group sounds, the band was never very successful as a live act in its original incarnation. Stein was more of a studio wizard and Harry often seemed uncomfortable and bored onstage, sometimes dancing halfheartedly. Not anymore.
The band delivered a fierce re-creation of "Hanging on the Telephone," a hard-charging song from Blondie's breakthrough album, Parallel Lines (1978), that drove the audience -- mostly contest winners invited by show sponsor WPLJ-FM -- into a head-banging frenzy.
Harry seemed to savor the moment as she rolled her heavily mascaraed eyes upward while singing. She made crazed-madwoman faces into the cameras of VH1, which will broadcast an edited version of the 90-minute show Sunday at 10 p.m. ET.
The new songs from No Exit fit in with the classics. "Screaming Skin," a song about Stein's long battle with a rare and often fatal genetic disease (from which he has recovered), sounded like Patti Smith doing ska; and the band's powerful rhythm persuades listeners to believe Blondie have more on their minds than simply trotting out hits for financial gain.
If the song wasn't compelling enough for naysayers, Blondie's new single "Maria" (RealAudio excerpt), a #1 pop hit in the U.K., erased any doubts. The infectious track has barely been played on U.S. radio, but the crowd sang along as if it were 1979.
After "Maria," Blondie played "Call Me" (RealAudio excerpt) the best-selling single of 1980, with a renewed vigor. This rendition included the song's last verse, which appeared only on the 12-inch version; in it, Harry updated the line, "dress me in the fashions of the 1980s" by switching the decade to the '90s.
During another new song, the funky "Forgive and Forget," Harry cooed, "If you forgive me my ferocity, I won't forget your sweetness." Her passion seemed to energize Burke, who stood up behind his drum kit, twirling his sticks.
Harry's delivery of Blondie's early rave-up "Rip Her to Shreds" would give Hole frontwoman Courtney Love a run for her money. Harry spat out the words of the ballad about a groupie with such hate, it was easy to see why she also has a career as an actress.
When she screamed "I'll follow your ass," during the encore song "One Way or Another," and when she draped herself, as if arrested, on the clear enclosure that surrounded Burke's drum kit during "Sex Offender," it was easy to recall how an angry young Harry propelled Blondie out of the punk club CBGB into national prominence in the late '70s.
"I saw her in Max's Kansas City years ago," said Carol Moroni, 37, of Brooklyn, N.Y., referring to another New York punk club.
Her 32-year-old sister, Jamie, said Carol "brought home Parallel Lines to me one day. It's a perfect album [that] I still play and tonight brings it full circle."
The moment that crystallized Blondie's re-ascension came during the final song of the regular set, the dance number, "Atomic." While Destri and Burke created the propulsive sounds of the song's middle section, Harry disappeared from the stage.
With fans screaming for her return, she reappeared. She marched to the mic triumphantly and closed her eyes, as the spotlight highlighted her perfect features.
"Tonight, make it magnificent," she sang. For one night, at least, that's just what Blondie did.