At age 63, is Cyndi Lauper still “So Unusual”? Glad you asked. Let’s run through few things the ’80s pop icon did at her “Austin City Limits” taping on Friday night:Contemplated whether a cockroach she encountered in a Nashville bathroom might actually be her spiritual master. Rocked a loosely braided cotton candy puff of pink hair, motorcycle boots and two different leather vests with varying lengths of fringe. Referred to Madonna as her evil cousin. Rode an adult-sized stick horse (that was presumably custom-made for this tour). Marveled at the alternate universe we might live in if she kept her rockabilly band Blue Angel going long enough to see the Stray Cats hit. Did a feminist lyrical analysis of the 1934 Patsy Montana song “I Wanna Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart” and determined that the cowboy is actually an entirely insignificant character in the story. Rambled charmingly, at length, about everything from her childhood in Queens to the Dalai Lama. Pulled off all of this in a way no other human being in the universe could.
Friday was Lauper’s debut appearance on Austin’s signature musical program and her performance had the feel of an old school variety show. She split her stage time between songs from “Detour,” her album of vintage country covers that dropped earlier this year, and electrifying versions of the enduring hits that made her famous. The end effect was a fabulous demonstration of her range.
“Detour” has the feel of a novelty project, an outgrowth of Lauper’s theatrical impulses following her extraordinary success with the Broadway musical “Kinky Boots.” Turns out her voice is surprisingly well suited to old country songs. She perfectly captured the rollicking melodies of the Ray Price classic “Heartache by the Numbers,” the defiant heartache of Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” and the plaintive warble on Skeeter Davis’ “End of the World.” Underlining the musical theater quality of these songs, she incorporated props — an old suitcase, a trunk she prostrated herself on, the afore-mentioned stick horse — in ways that were somewhat perplexing, but vocally, she was fully committed and the songs were quite lovely.
When she shifted back into her own material, however, we were instantly reminded exactly why she’s one of the biggest rock stars of her generation. She prowled the stage furiously and danced with abandon while belting out “She Bop” and “I Drove All Night” and she allowed the music to seize her body completely for the explosive set closer, “Money Changes Everything.”
When she returned for an encore, she kicked off with a heartfelt version of “Misty Blue” before a gorgeous take on “Time After Time.” She started “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” as a duet between voice and steel guitar and ended it dancing jubilantly through the audience, paying special attention to a group of young girls in the front of the crowd.
After leaving briefly a second time, she returned for a stunning a capella version of “True Colors.” As she performed, she reached out to the front row of the audience, joining hands with folks in the front row to create a meaningful emotional, spiritual and physical connection.
“We’re all entitled to a joyful life,” she said before performing her ultimate anthem to individuality as the second encore.
It was a fitting reminder from a woman who filled the theater with her own irrepressible joy all night long.