Punk rock as oldies?
That unthinkable was about as close a description as you could get to the set new wave group Blondie played Saturday as co-headliners of the second day of radio station WXPN-FM's XPoNential Festival at Camden, N.J.'s Wiggins Park and BB&T Pavilion.
It fell as flat as it sounds, with singer Debbie Harry and company lumbering through a 16-song, 85-minute set that included all of its hits, but all in listless presentations that had none of the energy or urgency of original punk and new wave (save for drummer Clem Burke — more about that later).
Far better was co-headliner Elvis Costello's set, but the real star of the day was Philadelphia's own Low Cut Connie, who on a blisteringly hot stage early in the day showed more life in one song than either of the headliners did through their entire sets.
From the start, Blondie's set was a modern Muzak mess of new wave, opening with its 1979 minor hit "One Way or Another" — Harry way too loose, singing snippets of lyrics and letting the audience finish, or not. She continued her disinterested speak-singing on "Hanging on the Telephone."
Harry paid more attention to the 2017 Dance chart hit "Fun," but was back to her careless presentation on the 1980 chart-topper "Call Me," skipping whole segments of lyrics and flat and listless on what she did sing.
And she dipped into oldies patter — "You remember that one? Well, maybe you'll remember this one!" — on its last charting song on Billboard's overall singles chart, 1999's "Maria."
She introduced another of Blondie's biggest hits, "Rapture," by recounting how the band met some resistance for its early incorporation of rap, but did so in a way that condescended both to the song and the audience: "But it all worked out in the end. Time marches on, you know."
She at least sang the song, even though it was weaker, and the rapping portions were pretty good.
The band followed that with a cover of another rapper: Lil Nas X's recent rap-country hit "Old Town Road." "I'll bet you didn't see that coming," she told the crowd.
The Latin dance number "Wipe Off My Sweat" sort of worked, and "Fade Away and Radiate," a deep cut from the band's biggest album, 1978's "Parallel Lines," featured by far Harry's best singing, as she hit some pretty soaring notes.
She sang most of another No. 1 hit, "The Tide is High," and it was fun and OK — even when she sampled Deee-Light's "Groove is in the Heart" during it.
As for the rest of the band, guitarist Chris Stein spent the show seated, and it was hard to tell how much he actually contributed. Burke was the one punk holdout — he energetically slammed through the set as if the music still meant something; by far the best musical contribution.
The encore was strangely anticlimactic, to the point of being unnecessary. It opened with Harry singing the theme to the James Bond film From Russia With Love with an image of the hacked presidential seal in front of which President Trump recently spoke (Get it? "From Russia with Love"?)
Then a Debbie Harry solo song, "You're Too Hot" and the closing minor hit "Dreaming."
But just how far Blondie missed its mark was told by the two songs that ended the main set. The first, "Orchid Club" (which featured an audible Stein), also had Blondie's hired-hand guitarist playing behind his head — the kind of performance that was anthesis to punk.
And it closed with its signature hit, "Heart of Glass," which despite being a little too Muzak was pretty good until it morphed into Donna Summer's "I Feel Love." That was the kind of soulless disco from which new wave and punk tried to rescue us.
Costello opened his set with an urgent and impassioned "Pump It Up," and sounded enthused on "Mystery Dance," but if he didn't all into Blondie's trap of turning his classic songs into oldies, he made the other mistake of concentrating too much on newer songs instead of the classics.
His more recent song written with Burt Bacharach, "Photographs Can Lie," was undistinguished (he teased it with a few bars of Bacharach's "The Look of Love" that was far more interesting).
Even "Green Shirt" from his 1979 Armed Forces disc was good and percolating, and he sang "Chelsea" from This Year's Model with emphasis.