There are hundreds of small cabaret rooms embedded around New York City, but few have the pedigree and staying power of the Upper East Side’s Café Carlyle. Since the mid-1950s, the venue has provided a particularly ritzy two-course-dinner-and-a-show experience to out-of-town visitors staying at the Carlyle Hotel and well-to-do locals alike. Solo celebrity shows from Broadway and pop stars are the café’s bread and butter, with the likes of Chita Rivera, Tony Danza, Suzanne Vega, and Alan Cumming setting the standard. It’s hardly the place you’d expect to see a performance from a pivotal figure of punk, but David Johansen has thrived on the unexpected throughout his career; why stop now?
Singer-actor Johansen has cut an utterly unique musical path to notoriety over the past 40 years. He first rose to prominence in the early ’70s as the frontman for the pioneering New York Dolls, whose incendiary blend of rock, glam, and flailing rebellion provided the bedrock for what would become the punk movement. The group was more influential than successful, leading Johansen to spin off on his own and record some six solo albums throughout the next two decades. The mercurial artist eventually remade himself in the ’80s as an unctuous and gravelly-voiced alter ego, Buster Poindexter. He scored a pair of pop radio hits with remakes of soca legend Arrow’s “Hot Hot Hot” and Louis Armstrong’s “’Zat You, Santa Claus?” and also appeared as a member of the Saturday Night Live house band.
In an odd twist, Johansen has gravitated to Café Carlyle in his later career, making it the main home for Poindexter’s infrequent live cabaret outings. He even makes an appearance as a bartender in the 2015 Carlyle-set, Bill Murray Netflix special, A Very Murray Christmas. Sadly for his fans, that year also marked the singer’s last live appearance at the café; he’s been absent since the start of the Trump era. That’s about to change as the venue prepares for a two-week run with Johansen as Buster Poindexter for the first half of April.
What makes these performances particularly special is each evening’s set list. For the first time, the 69-year-old Johansen will be showcasing songs from across his many personae’s catalogs, doing straight-faced takes on New York Dolls classics as well as renditions of solo work from throughout his career, both under his own name and as Poindexter. For a certain sort of old-school punk, this becomes a must-see show, an undeniable victory lap weaving together multiple eras of musical history from the perspective of a pivotal New York artist. Consider it a tribute show unironically and deservedly presented by the honoree.
35 East 76th Street (between Park and Madison Avenues), Upper East Side
Tuesday, April 2—Saturday, April 13
$85 Tuesday through Thursday ($65 bar seating and $135 premium seating)
$100 Friday and Saturday ($80 bar seating and $150 premium seating)