Now that grim, flannel-clad barbarians have taken over, it's hard to find a touch of eccentricity and campy whimsicality in rock any more.
Re-enter Nina Hagen, who has been carving out a persona of dizzy, cartoonish flamboyance since the early days of New Wave. The tour that brought her to the Coach House on Wednesday is something of a comeback attempt for Hagen, although she has kept up a steady recording pace lately, with the new "Revolution Ballroom" her third album in five years.
At 39, Hagen may have been out of the spotlight, but she obviously hasn't been out of touch. She knows that dark and petulant is in, and that was the tone she set at the start of her 75-minute concert.
Hagen, who has been making records since 1979, seemed bent on proffering her credentials as a punk-rock godmother. The opening sequence was dominated by growling, bash-it-out numbers with such in-your-face titles as "Leave Me Alone," "So Bad" and "Learn to Listen."
It was obvious, though, that she wasn't going to keep up that front all night: Hagen was a vision of campy theatricality from her stiletto-heeled boots to her rubberized Catwoman tights to her extravagant blond wig.
The opening song, "Leave Me Alone," had a real, spitfire anger behind it, but as soon as it was over Hagen went into a spoof on revulsion-rock, silently mowing down the audience with a goofy-looking plastic water gun.
From there, the show, played to about 150 loyalists, swung back and forth between the silly and the serious. At least while singing, Hagen kept in check the wild array of cartoon voices she became known for during the 1980s.
Back then, she could change guises during a single song from a stentorian, high-note operatic diva's delivery to a Betty Boop squeak to a guttural she-monster growl. At the Coach House, her guttural voicings dominated, often recalling the grim survivor's croak of Marianne Faithfull. The mouse-like Boop-squeaks she saved for between-songs interjections.
As a good godmother must, Hagen shared her younglings' pain in a sequence of songs that addressed the drug scourge in rock. It started with a thrash-punk number called "Dope Sucks" which both stated the obvious point of "just say no," and ridiculed those who think that "just say no" counts as a valid approach to solving the problem.
"Wish it would be so easy," Hagen said after the song had crashed to an end. "We know it never is . . . some just don't get out of it." That prefaced an acoustic lament drawn from a poem Hagen said was written by a doomed Berlin addict.
In a confident stroke, Hagen risked being seen as a bandwagon jumper and a grave-robber as she delivered a stormy version of Nirvana's "Rape Me." Nothing inappropriate about it: It was the perfect clincher for her in-the-drug-dungeon sequence.
Moving toward the light, Hagen then offered a strong, husky-voiced affirmation with "I'm Going to Live the Life," a gospel song that is one of the highlights of "Revolution Ballroom," a generally appealing album that's considerably less dizzy than some past efforts (no more songs about how space aliens will come to redeem humanity, for instance).
Hagen pressed her luck later in the show by singing another Nirvana song, "All Apologies." Just when it seemed that she had developed a lamentable case of dead-antihero obsession, she pushed the Cobain connection over the edge in engagingly absurd fashion by performing a jaunty, newly composed country ditty addressed to "Kurtie baby . . . in the sky."
In it, Hagen merged Cobain obsession with her own cosmic obsessions of long standing, positing that Kurtie would one day be reincarnated into a better world. It might seem maudlin on the surface of it, but in Hagen's hands it was an amusingly loopy digression.
With the punk-rocker side of persona dominant, Hagen gave short shrift to the Talking Heads-style dance-rock that she mined on the 1980s releases, "Fearless" and "Nina Hagen in Ekstasy."
But one of the show's highlights was the funk workout, "Cosma Shiva." Named after the singer's daughter, it was the only song in which Hagen exploited her dramatic high range.
She concluded with oddities (a reggae number, novelty songs about monsters and air pollution) and odds and ends from punk's early days (covers of Sid Vicious's version of "My Way," Ian Dury's "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" and two frenetic Ramones tunes, "I Wanna Be Sedated" and "We're a Happy Family").
For all its colorful elements, Hagen's return could have been much more vivid if her four-man band had been better than merely serviceable. Aside from some nice touches by the keyboards player, Atticus Finch (including the wryly skittering country-saloon piano licks that colored "I Wanna Be Sedated") they were a faceless, functional unit, both visually and musically.
Their punk-New Wave stuff had mass and energy, but the delivery was otherwise blocky and generic. An attempt at drama on a cover of Ben Harper's grim anti-racism anthem, "Like a King," was weighed down by a too-busy arrangement that included synthesized saxophone soloing.
It's no easy task Hagen has set for herself, making a comeback by riding the old New Wave, showing solidarity with its '90s heirs, and at the same time trying to do justice to her own diversity and eccentricity. Maybe it's inevitable that the results will be as scattered as they were at the Coach House.
The opening band, the Coltranes, also pulled itself in different directions, none of them having anything to do with its jazz-legend namesake. The five-member band from Fullerton and Buena Park is a new lineup spun off from the veteran Orange County band Nevada Time.
A good tandem male-female vocal mix and solid musicianship were the assets as the Coltranes divided their set between New Wave darkness and a brighter country-accented roots-rock style.
The highlight was a plaintive yet driving cover of the New Order song, "Love Vigilante," as it might have been conceived by Nick Lowe. The Coltranes will play again tonight at Linda's Doll Hut in Anaheim.