“I probably shoulda told ya earlier,” Buster Poindexter warned, hooch in hand, halfway through his second set of the night. “But I’m a little nuts.”
The line summed up David Johansen’s return as his R&B lounge-act alter ego, revived in April for a handful of shows after a 15-year absence. Back in 1983, a decade after Johansen joined the New York Dolls, he reemerged as Buster Poindexter and played slow nights at the city’s Tramps bar. His “Hot Hot Hot” version later hit big; it was absent from Wednesday’s setlist at Highline Ballroom. Instead, Buster brought ballad covers with the flair of a ringmaster and the snark of the Staten Island wise guy within. “Music to them is a religion,” he told the seated crowd of his four-piece band, “without all that Ten Commandments bullshit.”
They were a tight group in top form: Richard Hammond on stand-up bass, Brian Mitchell on keyboards and accordion, drummer Ray Grappone, and guitarist Brian Koonin, who played with Buster’s original Banshees of Blue lineup. Clad in suits, they blended blues and jazz, rockabilly and rumba, thriving on the rhythm of the moment while resurrecting Ray Charles’ “New York’s My Home,” Frank Sinatra’s “I Believe In You” and The Coasters’ “Down in Mexico.”
Buster’s hair, coiffed but still short of the pompadour length of his ’80s heyday, elongated his wiry physique. He wore a scarlet boutonniere on his black lapel. A glass of alcohol never left his side. “My doctor says I’m allowed one drink a day for the rest of my life,” Buster said as he sipped between songs. “So this one represents December 14th, 2018.”
After pouring another drink backstage and returning for his second set, Buster’s smile stretched wider and his long limbs went loose. He danced and his voice boomed and croaked beautifully on the evening’s only country number, “The King is Gone (So Are You),” George Jones’ tribute to Elvis Presley. More lost soul gems followed, among them LaVern Baker’s “Saved,” O.V. Wright’s “Eight Men, Four Women” and The Bobbettes’ “Mr. Lee,” during which Buster busted out a harmonica. Later, for the encore, he enlisted help from the audience on a Johansen cover. “You think I’m a whore,” they sang, “But I got a heart of gold,” Buster crooned in response.