When Jake Shears took the stage at Rams Head Live Thursday night, he wore what looked like the bottom half of a spacesuit and an open-chested leotard.
Later, he wore a skin-tight, rubber wet suit that made him look like a skinny, black prophylactic. He aimed to shock, but his outfits were the only risque moments in an hour-and-a-half show that played mainly to their broadest fan base.
For their first Baltimore show, they kept it tame, as clean and politically correct as a "NOH8" campaign. It is safe to say Robyn pulled in more gays back in February.
One likely reason for the tameness of the show is that it's hard to be a gay flamboyant stage performer these days, when your most outrageous shock tactic can be upstaged by a Lady Gaga. Even Freddie Mercury would have blanched at putting a horny unicorn in a music video (Kesha!).
But, also, Scissor Sisters have always had ambitions to appeal to mainstream, arena-sized audiences. Though they bill themselves as a merry band of filthy transgressors, more often than what they're good is making catchy songs - "Take Your Mama Out," "I Don't Feel like Dancin," - that even Vampire Weekend's mom fans can enjoy.
While their songs had always hinted at sex, it wasn't until their last album, "Night Work" that they took it on with complete abandon, singing about sex without condoms and Foucauldian past-times. It played like a Billy Friedkin movie. It was dark, provocative, unapologetic, a creative peak.
Thursday's show - where they played some 18 songs - was too much like their first two albums - ebullient, sure, but too tame, a show that reined it in for maximum mass appeal; a set list, in fact, meant to play as amuse bouche for a Gaga audience, for whom they've opened on the Monster Tour.
While the cover art of "Night Work" is a Robert Mapplethorpe picture of dancer Peter Reed's behind, Scissor Sister's backdrop here was a nude Olympian woman. "Night Work" was represented, but the kinkiest songs - "Skin Tight," "Whole New Way" - weren't. "Sex and Violence," a ferocious track on the album, was defanged here as an acoustic version.
Shears' idea of showboating included lifting his mic in a show of strength, which made him look more like a twinky Jack Lalanne, and spraying the audience with water twice, an unfortunately posey move. He didn't talk much. It was Ana Matronic, actually, who played the Kiki to his Herb, interacting with the audience, dedicating songs, and yakking it up like a seasoned lounge singer. Though he dressed like a futuristic go go dancer, the stabs Shears and Ana took at choreography consisted of jumping around in place and vamping, which, to be fair, Shears did better than Rihanna.
The show's reticence is logical. This is a much bigger production than what a Robyn would put on - it comes with a three-member band, two back-up singers, elaborate light work - and actually made the small Rams Head look bigger. Playing for larger crowds now, they can't be as uncompromising as they got to be on "Night Work," which is not to say that they weren't sex positive, or that, stealing several pages from Gaga's book, heavy on the self-affirmation platitudes - "Be yourself," and all that junk.
But, it robs them of the candor that distinguished them in the first place. Ana Matronic dedicated "Filthy/Gorgeous" to John Waters because he taught the band the true meaning of trash, apparently. But, on the road, Scissor Sisters is playing more like late-career Waters. Charming as it was, this concert was more "Pecker" than "Mondo Trasho."
There were great moments. "Running Out" showed off another thing they do well, the energetic work-out anthem. Ana Matronic was appropriately gamine on "Skin this Cat."
The night's best moments, though, came only when they stayed close to "Night Work''s degenerate spirit - "Invisible Light," with its Ian McKellen prologue, ended the night on a decadent note; "Comfortably Numb" was made all the more sleazy when Shears performed looking a runaway from a Kenneth Anger movie; "Harder You Get" was in-your-face, and enjoyably off-the-rails.
If the crowd - large, but hardly overwhelming - wanted more than those few moments of recklessness, they didn't show it. They were enthusiastic throughout.
There was one more cute moment off stage when "Take Your Mama Out" came on. On the balcony, where I was sitting, a very big man - think a heftier Eric Stonestreet - sat up from his seat and for the first time danced like no one was watching. It's the kind of unrestraint the best Scissor Sisters songs can provoke.
But after he finished, he didn't get up again until it was time to leave.
Any Which Way
She's My Man
Tits on the Radio
Harder You Get
Take Your Mama
Kiss You Off
Fire with Fire
Skin This Cat
Sex and Violence (Acoustic)
I Don't Feel Like Dancin'
Photo: Scissor Sisters performing in June (Reuters)