Those who might have sat out gay icon Cyndi Lauper’s latest tour thinking either they’re just not that into the blues (her latest album is devoted exclusively to the genre) or they could just catch it on DVD (a live double-disc set drops next week) made a huge mistake — her fiery 90-minute set Tuesday night at the 9:30 Club was full of surprises, from the number of hits she included to the vastly different set list the show had compared to her 2010 stop at the same venue.
Lauper, of course, is always full of surprises. She always varied her show from night to night so you never quite know what you’re going to get. Tuesday’s concert found the 58-year-old legend, who was just here two weeks ago to play a mini set at the Human Rights Campaign dinner, she-bopping around the stage with both physical and vocal abandon. This is clearly not a woman who plays it safe. Obviously singing live, she belted out several money notes that proved her legendary pipes — infinitely heartier and more robust than Madonna’s or Cher’s — are wonderfully intact with her full range entirely at her disposal.
It’s always a little tricky programming a concept album into a set but Lauper’s tight band, which included blues legend Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica, furnished an uncannily apt musical continuity throughout the evening so smoldering cuts like “Just Your Fool” and “Shattered Dreams” flowed nicely into Lauper staples like “Change of Heart” and, of course, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Lauper’s other great triumph is how inventively she and her musical cohorts alter her arrangements from tour to tour. This can be a tricky thing that occasionally has stymied the singer — her “At Last”-era arrangement of “She Bop” sounded like something a violinist would play at your table at a ’50s-era Italian restaurant. Interesting enough, but hardly grooving. Thankfully it was back in an uptempo arrangement Tuesday. The evening’s biggest surprises were smoldering renditions of catalog staples like “Gonnies R Good Enough,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” (which just missed the U.S. Top Ten when Lauper released it as a 1987 single) and a radically reworked “Lyfe” from her underrated 2008 album “Bring Ya to the Brink.” The only so-so song was a meandering “Down So Low” (from the new album) that didn’t catch fire.
The ballads — “All Through the Night,” “Time After Time” and encore “True Colors” — were less altered but all sung with conviction and bravado. “Colors” especially resonated with Musselwhite providing surprisingly effective harmonica for its familiar opening strains. When introducing the song, Lauper — sporting a Raggedy Ann-red wig clipped up in a quasi mohawk style — reiterated her gay support and talked about her New York center for homeless LGBT youth. Fans willing to donate $200 to her True Colors Foundation got to meet Lauper backstage for a quick meet and greet. Photos and autographs were allowed but it was a cattle call with her handlers moving people through in rapid succession just before she went on. I didn’t go but could see the proceedings in the 9:30 Club’s stage left balcony area.
If the set list — just 14 songs — looked a little meager on paper, keep in mind Lauper was co-headlining with zydeco legend Dr. John (he wasn’t merely the opening act) and Lauper is clearly of the Stevie Nicks school of set list construction — do fewer songs but give your tight band time to jam a little. It’s the opposite of a Diana Ross or Loretta Lynn (who just played the 9:30 Club Saturday) show where they plow through material like a grocery store check-out clerk.
The big shock of the evening was Lauper duetting with Dr. John during his set on “All Night Long.” It’s highly unusual for a headliner to do such a thing but it made for a great bonus to the evening, especially for the gays in the house, many of whom were merely waiting for Lauper’s set despite Dr. John’s obvious talent.
Cyndi’s set was:
(“All Night Long” pre-set number with Dr. John)
1. Just Your Fool
2. Shattered Dreams
3. She Bop
* band intros
5. All Through the Night
6. Down So Low
7. Don’t Cry No More
8. Goonies R Good Enough
9. Change of Heart
10. What’s Going On
12. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun
13. Time After Time
14. True Colors (encore)