- The Washington Times - Friday, June 19, 2009

Approximately 40 years ago, Sylvain Sylvain scanned the New York City block that housed his fledgling clothing shop. Across the street from his storefront was the New York Dolls Hospital, a longtime toy repair shop. Something about the store’s name piqued his interest.

“I was inspired,” the guitarist remembers. “I turned around to my friends Johnny Thunders and Billy Mucia and said, ‘Man, wouldn’t that be a great name for a band?’ They said ‘What, the New York Dolls Hospital?’ and I said ‘No, no! Just the New York Dolls, man.’”

Four decades later, the New York Dolls are revered as pioneers of the punk movement. The band enjoyed a brief career during the early ‘70s, boasting a striking visual presence equal parts makeup and menace as well as a fiery fusion of pop, blues and gaudy showmanship.

No one had ever sounded like the Dolls, and no one had dared look like them.

“It was never just about the music for us,” Mr. Sylvain says. “We had a lifestyle, and our audience has grown with us over the years. Even when we were broken up, we spoke to each generation in the way that they picked up on our band.”

The timelessness of the Dolls’ music can be attributed partially to their influences. Singer David Johansen was interested in theater, having joined the Ridiculous Theatre Company — a campy, avant-garde troupe in Manhattan’s East Village &8212; at age 16. Meanwhile, Mr. Sylvain preferred the soul music of the Young Rascals and the raw, blistering rock of the Stooges.

Once formed, the band added more influences to the melting pot, from the Shangri-Las’ melodramatic pop to the Rolling Stones’ swagger. An appreciation for the blues helped anchor the mix.

“If you take away the lipstick, you’ve got the blues under there,” Mr. Sylvain says. “Basically, this is a blues-based band. We’re all about three-chord progressions and improvised guitar solos, and we learn our craft from performing.”

The New York Dolls’ most famous incarnation came to an unfortunate end in 1975 following several years of substance abuse and commercial disappointment. Three decades later, however, the band’s three surviving members regrouped for a series of reunion shows. A new album followed in 2006, reaffirming the Dolls’ status as an eclectic, volatile act.

“‘Cause I Sez So,” the band’s fourth album, was released in May. Like its predecessors, the album pays homage to a variety of styles, all of which are molded into the New York Dolls’ signature stomp. Unlike the rest of the band’s catalog, it was recorded in Hawaii.

“One day on the island, I saw this cruise ship,” Mr. Sylvain explains. “They were checking out the whales and doing their thing out there, you know? And I started imagining that I was on that ship, playing with a band in the lounge. What song would I be doing?”

Mr. Sylvain posed that question to his band mates, who promptly rerecorded an old Dolls song, “Trash,” using a tropical arrangement.

Despite the occasional stab of island flair, however, “‘Cause I Sez So” is largely steeped in the urban shuffle of New York City, which continues to serve as the band’s muse.

“I’ve been living in Atlanta since the late ‘90s,” the guitarist says, “but you always have your Metro card available, even when you’re not using it. You know what I mean?” After a pause, he clarifies, “What I’m trying to say is that you can take us out of New York, but you can’t take the New York outta the New York Dolls.”

• The New York Dolls visit the 9:30 Club Friday for a performance alongside Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears. Doors open at 8 p.m., and music begins at 9. Tickets are $25.

The Boss of Bonnaroo

The eighth installment of the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival wrapped up Monday after a long weekend of live performances and unpredictable weather.

Conceived as a haven for jam bands, Bonnaroo has grown to encompass a wide array of musicians, comedians, performance artists and activists. Phish, perhaps the most celebrated jam band since the Grateful Dead, helped return this year’s festival to its roots, while a headlining performance by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band placated a wider swath of fans.

A handful of Riffs alumni turned in solid sets during the four-day event. The Drive-By Truckers shared the stage with legendary organist Booker T., while the Decemberists faithfully re-created the operatic bombast of “Hazards of Love.” Meanwhile, songwriter Erin McCarley helped open the festival the night of June 11, playing a mix of pop and coffeehouse soul to a small bundle of fans.

Despite the eclectic bill, this undoubtedly was the Bruce Springsteen show. The Boss played for nearly four hours, tirelessly baiting the audience with a balance of rock-star poise and preacher-worthy zeal. One day later, he returned to the main stage during Phish’s set, trading guitar licks with Trey Anastasio and commanding the microphone for three songs.

It was an appropriate conclusion to the weekend, a bridge between Bonnaroo’s jam-band past and its diverse, promising future.

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