Monday, February 09, 2009

The Pretenders rock the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor

(Photo courtesy of

Chrissie Hynde stood in a downtown Ann Arbor shop a few hours before Monday's show at the Michigan Theater and eavesdropped on a conversation between a man and a college-aged girl.

The man told her The Pretenders were in town, to which the girl responded, "Who are they?"

"Some 1950s band," he replied.

"Fuck," Hynde chuckled as she recounted the story a few hours later in front of a near-packed house. "It's the '80s! Get it right."

Then she kicked her hard-driving band into a fervent sequence of songs that proved, no matter what decade it is, The Pretenders sound as rollicking and relevant as ever.

Touring off the first band's new album in more than six years, Hynde could have played it safe and trotted out the band's greatest hits catalog. Never one to overly care about what others may think, she instead largely omitted the old warhorses from the set list (notably My City Was Gone, Middle Of The Road and Stand By You).

Which was just fine, because the seven tunes Hynde and The Pretenders played from their new disc, Break Up The Concrete, wonderfully showcased the band's trademarks: her ropy vocals, Martin Chambers' rhythm-dictating drum work and full-throttle guitars.

If that sounds just like the combination that made The Pretenders a power-punk-rock force in the 1980s, well, that's about right.

But in its current form, the band has added a pedal steel guitar that brings weeping flecks of country and western to the new songs and re-casts some of Hynde's older work in a more melancholy layer.

The live result of that addition was a show that mixed tender moments with hard-edged punk and batten-down-the-hatches guitars.

"Boots of Chinese Plastic," the up-tempo lead song on the new album, kicked things off, followed by another newbie, "Don't Cut Your Hair." Hynde slowed things down or a while with an oldie, "Talk Of The Town," followed by "Nothing Maker" and the radio-friendly cut from the new album, "Love's A Mystery."

Then came my favorite moment of the show.

Sending up a tribute to "Dr. Bob," the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, The Pretenders played "The Last Ride," a sad and beautiful song off the new album. On the recorded version, the song is largely piano-driven. But live, with no ivory on stage, guitarist James Walbourne carried the song hauntingly on a mandolin.

It was one of those rare moments where music was both spooky and poignant and new, which just sent chills up my spine.

Hynde got back to the pop, bringing the crowd to its feet for the first time with "Stop Your Sobbing," which was followed by the familiar "Brass In Pocket," and a tribute to fallen guitarists James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon, "Back On The Chain Gang," which might be one of the best songs ever written.

There were some light moments, with Hynde cajoling both pedal-steel guitarist Eric Heyood and Chambers into exhibiting their bird-calling expertise.

At an earlier point, Hynde got a good laugh from the crowd by saying, "It's nice to see so many old faces here tonight."

One of the fresher faces was Walbourne, who absolutely stole the second half of the show with his furious, Red Bull pace that even upstaged Hynde, who seemed gracious and happy to relinquish the spotlight.

Walbourne, a U.K. guy who has recently played with indie pop's The Pernice Brothers, dished out a punishing solo during "Thumbelina," and that was just his warm-up. He revealed more and more of his considerable ability as the show progressed.

By the end, he brought the crowd to its feet on multiple occasions, and took command during an encore comprised of four songs from The Pretenders debut album -- "Kid," "Precious," "The Wait," and "Up The Neck" -- all probably written when he was in diapers.

Walbourne alone was worth the price of admission.

When you factor in the rest of the show, it was a very, very good night in Ann Arbor, a place that is proudly the home town of punk legend Iggy Pop, as Hynde noted.

My only complaint would be that The Pretenders probably just cleared the 1-hour, 30-minute mark from start to finish. Considering all they compressed into that time and the fact they left me wanting more, it's barely worth mentioning.



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