Certain words in music criticism are severely overused. “Attitude” comes readily to mind. “Punk” is another. Yet these words are starkly evident from the second Chrissie Hynde takes a stage. She embodies the punk attitude so many talk about, but not many can pull off. Her trademark bangs, her unparalleled confidence, her killer songs—all of these combine to create an almost visible aura of authentic, natural cool. To say nothing of her voice, which is simultaneously smooth and snarling, just like the woman herself.
In Philadelphia, the crowd—her crowd—was instantly transfixed and endlessly adoring from the moment she strutted up to the mic and greeted the giddy (and lubricated) people at her feet. Standing tall at her mic in a tailed black blazer, perfectly fitted blue jeans and high-heeled boots, she and the Pretenders tore into “Boots of Chinese Plastic” off their rootsy triumph, Break Up the Concrete. With its brick walls and sticky floors, the Electric Factory was a fitting scene for the band’s first tour in several years—grizzled yet venerable.
The crowd was hers. Amid cries of “Chrissie!” Hynde took the mic, sans guitar, coyly asking, “Are there any gentlemen in the house?” before leading the band into “Don’t Cut Your Hair”, another new cut. Toying with the crowd, she shimmied to the edge of the stage singing to audience.
After “Talk of the Town”, Hynde announced to the photographers (professional and otherwise) that now was the time to take their shots. The professionals got up close, snapped and retreated to their side of the stage. However, the camera phone photographers sprinkled throughout the audience continued to click away—and would soon get a healthy dose of that Punk Attitude.
With bombast from longtime drummer Martin Chambers, the band launched into “Message of Love” and as Hynde kicked and struck naturally cool guitar poses, the audience responded wildly. The crowd reached full-throat for “Back on the Chain Gang”, Hynde’s ode to the late original Pretenders guitarist, James Honeyman-Scott. The crowd’s “Oh”‘s swelled with Hynde’s, matching her note for note. Flanked on either side by band members significantly younger (bassist Nick Wilkinson and lead guitarist James Walbourne), Hynde took on the appearance of a legend amongst mere sidemen. However, the talent on stage did not rest solely with Hynde. She gave way to Walbourne during “Rosalee”, a slow groove from Break Up the Concrete, as he delivered spine-shivering solos that elicited impressed cheers from the crowd. The crowd was enthusiastically receptive of the new material throughout the night, which was spread liberally amongst the Pretenders’ canon of hits.
In the first tour of this incarnation of the Pretenders, the group played well together, each adding their own elements to the sound. Eric Haywood’s pedal steel licks brought some new flavor to older Pretenders tunes and Wilkinson’s pocket grooves worked well with the thunder coming from Chambers’ drums.
The middle of the set featured many of the most enduring Pretenders songs, including a spirited “Brass in Pocket”, during which Hynde teased the crowd, using her arms, legs, and style. With a loving audience packed in below her, Hynde still sang with impassioned conviction, “I’m gonna make you notice me.” “Tattooed Love Boys” followed, with the same piss-and-vinegar attitude Hynde poured into it almost 30 years ago.
That attitude was occasionally directed at the crowd, as the camera phone photographers endlessly exasperated her. “I guess it’s a privilege for me to up here, but it’s also my privilege to tell you to fuck off,” she told the cellphone photographers early in the set. Later, as the band started the Pretenders classic, “Stop Your Sobbing”, Hynde stopped the song and snapped to the photo-takers, “Take your fucking pictures,” posing first with an I-mean-this middle finger and then turning around for a backside shot. The band restarted and nailed a terrific version of the song, which had taken on an instant irony.
Even after three decades of success and universally regarded status as a rock icon, Hynde is still the same authentic rock chick, guitar slung near her waist, peering out behind thick bangs and thicker eyeliner. Whether playing one of many crowd favorites—including a wonderful version of “Kid” during the encore—or berating that same crowd for distracting her, Hynde remains the definition of that thing we call Attitude.