Peaking during the big-hair, light-metal days of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Concrete Blonde stood alongside The Cure and Siouxsie and the Banshees as one of those bands that the cool-but-moody chicks in high school dug. Sure, even the cheerleaders liked the song “Joey”, but most of us knew little more than the MTV gossip about the band: lead-singer Johnette Napolitano had some sort of vampire fetish, she’d once dated punk icon Joey Ramone, and Michael Stipe had given Concrete Blonde its name. But, for the (mostly female) aficionados clad in black and red, Concrete Blonde was as real as it got, a sister act to fellow LA-kingpins Jane’s Addiction.
Unfortunately, Concrete Blonde never got all the way off the ground, at least in the commercial sense. Napolitano had attitude and vocal chops to burn, guitarist Jim Mankey had enough dissonant guitar breaks to keep some of the guys interested, and they even had cool lyrics! But the timing was all wrong. Female-led goth groups had no place in the grunge-thirsty ‘90s, and Concrete Blonde may as well have been Allanah Myles. The road to record label success was paved with flannel shirts in 1992, and Johnette’s crushed velvet cape wasn’t going to cut it.
20 Feb 2002: The Middle East Cambridge, Massachusetts
So Concrete Blonde split up and Johnette dabbled in a few other musical outfits, but mostly she licked her wounds, waiting for the sun to set on slacker-rock and planning the rebirth of vamp(ire)-rock.
Well, Johnette’s back in black, and the original Concrete Blonde lineup is with her. After seeing their performance at the Middle East in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it’s safe to say that Concrete Blonde are as good as they’ve ever been. The sold-out show (at $20 a head, no less!) offered a trip down memory lane for most of the crowd and an introduction for few scattered younger brothers, sisters and significant others.
From the moment the lights went out and the pre-concert Bowie tunes died away, the packed house was rabid for Johnette, screaming her name as she strolled across the stage and slung her bass guitar strap across her shoulder. The 44-year-old singer looked ten years younger and soon made up for lost time. “This is a George Harrison song,” she proclaimed, and the band broke into “Beware of Darkness”, from George’s All Things Must Pass album, also covered by Concrete Blonde on their eponymous 1987 debut. Unfortunately, the levels were way off, and Johnette’s vocals were lost in a bass-heavy mix. No problem, however. The crowd had waited ten years to see this performance and everyone was more than willing to sit through a 4-minute opener/sound check as the engineer worked things out.
Once sonically set, the band eased into “Roxy”, the first song of their new album, Group Therapy, and a tribute to recently reunited Roxy Music. Concrete Blonde has some connections with the Ferry-led project: drummer Paul Thompson, who played on Roxy Music’s earliest and greatest albums, also played on Concrete Blonde’s Bloodletting and Mexican Moon albums. Thompson is no longer with Concrete Blonde, however, and it seems curious that the band would open their own comeback album with a tribute to a much more popular band, recently reunited. Napolitano sings, “Roxy, you’re my Maggie Mae, more beautiful tonight than you ever were back in the day.” Is Napolitano declaring Roxy Music better now than ever? That’s a bold statement, although perhaps she simply finds Roxy Music’s music more enjoyable now. And is that an appropriate metaphor? Rod Stewart’s Maggie Mae was less beautiful at the time of the song than she ever was, right? “The morning sun, when it’s in your face, really shows your age.” It’s an intriguing lyric, for certain, and a wonderfully provocative way to introduce old fans to the new material.
Clearly, the crowd had done their homework, as more than half of the former and current goths sang along with every word of the new song. But the show really took off with the third song of the night, a scorching version of Concrete Blonde’s first college-radio hit “God Is a Bullet”. Johnette was in top form, fingers thundering across the bass and snarling every line of the song’s memorable chorus. For five full minutes, most of the late 20s/early 30s crowd was transported back to their college dorm room or high school parking lot and the college-radio sunset of the late ‘80s.
Concrete Blonde paced their set well, mixing in most of the best songs from Group Therapy with many of their classics (with the notable exceptions of any song of Mexican Moon, what many consider their best album). Following “Tonight” off the new album, Johnette told the crowd, “I missed you; we all did.” The place went wild, as expected, and it seemed like Johnette was a little taken aback at the overwhelming reception. To thank the audience, the band broke into the slow groove of “Everybody Knows”, the Leonard Cohen song that Concrete Blonde made their own on 1992’s Walking in London. This crowd-favorite was followed by Johnette’s signature tune, “Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)”, and it was perfect. Mankey’s vibrato-heavy, descending guitar line cut through the appreciative masses, as Johnette’s walking bass and pissed-off vocals brought the crowd to their finger-pointing, head-banging peak. It seemed every person in the room sang every word of the song. After all, why go to a Concrete Blonde show, if not to sing “I’m gonna have drink, and walk around, I got a lot to think about, oh yeah!” with no shame, whatsoever?
Concrete Blonde demonstrated their versatility mid-set, with Johnette playing keyboards and Jim Mankey assuming bass duties on two new songs. “Fried” was particularly tight as Mankey sat right in the pocket while Johnette let flow with an in-your-face chorus and a partially rapped verse.
And of course, no Concrete Blonde show would be complete without “Joey”. Fortunately, Johnette avoided melodrama and created a medley of sorts, alternating verses of “Joey” with verses of the Irish drinking song “Whiskey in the Jar-O”. “I hope you enjoy the juxtaposition,” Johnette stated. We did!
Concrete Blonde played a short-and-sweet first set and left to a thunderous ovation. After letting the crowd beg for a few minutes, the band returned to the stage for an encore of three of their greatest hits, “Scene of the Crime”, “Someday?”, and “Still in Hollywood”. Then, Mankey and drummer Harry Rushakoff left the stage, while Johnette removed her bass and just sort of lingered by her amp. As the crowd cheered and hollered, Johnette grabbed the mic and strolled to the front of the stage. Leaning forward, she thanked the crowd, and then uttered, “It is complete now—two ends of time are neatly tied”—the opening lines of “Tomorrow, Wendy”. That was all the crowd needed, as the final song of the night was Johnette’s a cappella version of the Andy Prieboy favorite, with vocal accompaniment from about 500 diehard fans.
Concrete Blonde occupied some obscure middle ground between Less Than Zero-era Hollywood and, well, “college music.” It’s a tough gig to pull off, but Concrete Blonde did it then, and they’re doing it again, with seemingly much more to offer. Johnette closed the final show of the tour with a musical blast from the past, but she expresses a more appropriate sentiment in “Memory”, the new album’s final track: “life is so very rich and made of these memories and melodies . . . welcome home.” A cheesy line from anyone else’s mouth, but wicked, vital and warm as an icicle, from the lips of Johnette Napolitano.