The Pretenders + Cat Power + Juliette Lewis
11 Aug 2009: Central Park SummerStage New York
Juliette Lewis bounced on stage at 6 o’clock sharp wearing a gaudy sequined shirt, red tights, knee pads, gray knee-high boots and a collection of scarves that dangled from a belt, as if they might be deployed in an act of their own later on. Her hair, curly and fringed, was soaked within minutes as she leapt around the stage in the 90-degree heat, tasking herself with getting the crowd revved up for what would be a high-energy, but as yet far-off, set from The Pretenders.
After a handful of songs, most of which came from her upcoming album Terra Incognita, Lewis hopped down from the stage and over the fence, traipsing through the crowd, getting a few unsolicited hugs from strangers in the process. The audience was full of smiles but seemed surprised, as if needing a couple of more hours, or sets, or the disappearance of the sun, to muster up the energy that Lewis wanted them to have. Despite the heat, Lewis’ voice became stronger and more expressive as she moved through the set, throwing in a couple of Juliette and the Licks songs including “Pray for The Band Latoya”. Her new songs are both serious and uplifting, but the soaring, aching force she and her band created dissipated after a short 30 minutes as they handed the stage over to a completely different act.
Cat Power’s band, Dirty Delta Blues, has ratcheted up her recordings, particularly her second covers album Jukebox, to include elaborate flourishes and solos for four parts: Longtime drummer Jim White, guitarist Judah Bauer, bassist Erik Paparazzi, and keyboardist/organist Gregg Foreman. Marshall, given time to pause and listen to them play, appears happier than ever, smiling at the audience with an enthusiasm that borders on disbelief, as if she’s seen an old friend for the first time in years, or is just recognizing the promise of a new romance. Indeed, she’s recounted in interviews the experience of waking up to realize that her fans actually cared, noticed, and loved her. To that end, her friends, seated stage left at the SummerStage performance, received the same warm smiles as the strangers out in front.
Marshall opened with her own “I Don’t Blame You” followed by a slow, intricate cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams”. Shuffling around in all gray, shoving a thumb or finger into the tight pockets of her jeans, adjusting her bra, stamping a foot, arching herself over the microphone, it was as if she was working out the details of an idea, or maybe, for Janis Joplin’s “A Woman Left Lonely”, an argument. Her voice, with its unthreatening force, pours out surprisingly from a face hidden under bangs. But it emerges proudly, confidently, on the highest notes. When pausing to let the band work out their parts, her face twinkled out at us with a smile.
The night wasn’t all about covers, but there also wasn’t any new material to be heard. The originals included “Metal Heart” and “Lived in Bars” while the covers came via “Silver Stallion”, “Ramblin’ (Wo)Man”, and, from The Covers Record, “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Sea of Love”. She exited the way she entered: to thundering instrumentals that managed to distract us from her absence.
Chrissie Hynde took the stage with the title track from The Pretenders’ new album, the locomotive “Break Up the Concrete”, accompanied by the band’s original drummer, Martin Chambers, and an otherwise all-new lineup: Nick Wilkinson on bass, James Walbourne on guitar, and Eric Haywood on pedal steel. The pulse of the audience dictated that the majority of them were there for the headliner; Juliette Lewis was a teaser and Cat Power was a soothing water break.
Hynde took the opportunity to showcase a good number of new tracks, including “Rosalee”, which she introduced by saying, “This one’s about a girl.” The crowd erupted. “Now don’t get too excited,” she cautioned, “I can’t remember whether I snogged her or not.” “Snogged” was just one of the loving references to the singer’s adopted home: She has split her time between London, England and her birthplace of Akron, Ohio, for years, and in between songs referenced old familiar neighborhoods like Muswell Hill, and gave a shout-out to the late bass player Pete Farndon and late guitarist James Honeyman-Scott, who, with Hynde and Chambers, formed the original Pretenders in London in 1978.
The band has famously been a revolving door with some tragic exits and Hynde the only continuous member. But there were no chinks in the armor on this early stop of the band’s US tour. Hynde, at 57, has as smooth and powerful a voice as ever, and she kept it in high gear throughout the set, selecting and performing her biggest hits with gusto.
“Brass in Pocket”, “Back on the Chain Gang”, the well-worn, oft-covered “Angel of the Morning”, “Thumbelina”, “Message of Love”, and “Talk of the Town” were freshened up with interspersings from Break Up the Concrete, including “Love’s a Mystery” and “The Last Ride”. But from the volume of the cheer, Hynde knew it was the hits the crowd wanted the most, and they succeeded in turning the audience from sweaty and curious, to rapt, intoxicated, and ready to dance.