It’s been 20 years since Concrete Blonde’s Bloodletting LP helped the alt-rock trio burst into the national consciousness, and helped spearhead the “alternative” music movement. The album certainly wasn’t metal, but it sure did have some hard rocking tunes. Yet it also had some gorgeous pop gems, haunting ballads and a big dose of psychedelia thanks to guitarist James Mankey’s liberal use of effects. Bassist/vocalist Johnette Napolitano had a dynamic voice, charismatic presence and a unique style that made the band hard to classify in the summer of 1990, so the term alternative truly fit (even if it wasn’t widely used until Nirvana broke big in 1991).
The album still sounds strikingly fresh and vital two decades later: the mark of a true classic. With vampires all the rage thanks to True Blood and Twilight, the time is oh so ripe for the band to reunite this summer for a tour dubbed “20 Years of Bloodletting: The Vampires Rise.” The deepest testament to the staying power of both the album and the band is the rabid crowd that greets the returning heroes at Emo’s. From the opening notes of the album’s title track and powerful opener, “Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)”, there’s an electrifying vibe in the air that never fades during the band’s lengthy set.
Looking like a cross between an elder vampire queen and Linda Hamilton’s buffed-out Sarah Conner in Terminator 2, Napolitano is in fine form. Mankey looks quite different, with short gray hair instead of the long tresses he sported in the ’90s, but he still accompanies Napolitano in superb fashion. The drum slot has had some movement, but Gabriel Ramirez has held it down since 2002. The band isn’t playing Bloodletting start to finish in its entirety as some ads have implied, but the classic LP is certainly featured heavily. The trio wastes no time getting to the biggest hit as the second song of the set is “Joey”, the shimmering melodic gem that lit up the radio waves back in that summer of 1990. The combo of Napolitano’s heartfelt vocals and Mankey’s psychedelic fills were unlike anything else heard at the time. The song sounds as good as ever here, with Napolitano really belting it out at the end, showing her voice has lost nothing. The only flaw is how Mankey fails to attempt anything close to duplicating his classic guitar solo, arguably one of the greatest ever to grace a hit song. But it’s the only time in the evening one can find any fault with his playing.
Mankey rips it up on the solo in “Days and Days”, another of Bloodletting‘s high-energy rockers that sees the crowd surging. The album’s gorgeous “Lullaby” is another highlight, with Napolitano’s soothing voice and Mankey’s ethereal chords blending like magic. The band put out several other excellent albums too, and yet another highlight (this show is jam packed with them) comes with “Ghost of a Texas Ladies’ Man” from 1992’s Walking in London. Napolitano acknowledges that the tune was written here in Austin, and the combo of Concrete Blonde’s Los Angeles psyche style with some Texas blues makes for a delicious sonic treat. London‘s “Someday” is a crowd pleaser as well, a mid-tempo tune of hope during times of struggle. It features another soaring chorus from Napolitano, who has few peers with the vocal range to dazzle equally on ballads and hard rockers.
“It’s so good to see you,” says Napolitano to the adoring crowd. “Unbelievable.”
What’s unbelievable is how the show just keeps sailing along at such a peak level. The band continues to deliver with their epic cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows”, which they transmogrify into a harder rocking yet still brooding lament that really drives home the song’s cynical yet savvy lyrics. “Everybody knows the dice are loaded / Everybody knows the good guys lost / Everybody knows the fight is fixed… everybody knows that BP lied,” ad-libs Napolitano with timely precision. Another peak moment occurs with Bloodletting‘s “Caroline”, with Mankey’s shimmering mid-tempo chords laying the foundation for yet another classic tune. This version has a more syncopated groove then the studio recording, giving it a little extra oomph.
The band then moves back to 1989’s Free for a smoking double shot of “God is a Bullet” and “Run Run Run”, throwing down two of their hardest hitting tunes. Both are longtime crowd pleasers, igniting the Emo’s crowd to a higher level still. Drummer Gabriel Ramirez pounds the skins on “Run Run Run” with an intensity that recalls Dave Grohl’s furious work with Nirvana and Them Crooked Vultures, while Mankey rips off short but stinging bursts of psychedelic lava.
“Don’t smoke,” pleads Napolitano to the crowd in between songs. “I’m from California…old woman.”
Napolitano’s voice sounds unharmed as she dazzles further on a sparkling rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing”. Mankey’s majestic tone is tailor made for the song, but it’s the heavenly vocals from Napolitano that mesmerize. The band then uses the song to launch into one of their most powerful jams of the evening.
Things wind down with Ramirez leaving the stage while Mankey accompanies Napolitano for an acoustic duo segment that starts with a splendid Spanglish version of “Mexican Moon”, the title track from the group’s underrated 1994 LP. “Happy Birthday” and “Tomorrow, Wendy” are featured as well, two more classics that show off Concrete Blonde’s impressive thematic diversity with a feel good rocker followed by a dark, brooding lament for an AIDS victim. Most of the ladies are singing along on both tunes, with Napolitano cutting loose on the latter, almost screaming when she sings “Don’t count on any second coming / God got his ass kicked the first time he came down slumming.”
It’s a powerful moment that could easily end the show, as the song often did back on the original Bloodletting tour. But this is rock ‘n’ roll, so Ramirez comes back out and the band launches into one of their oldest songs, “Still in Hollywood”. The borderline metal song almost sounds like Motley Crue circa 1983, a reminder that Concrete Blonde evolved out of that same ’80s Hollywood music scene. When the lights come up, there’s nothing but elated smiles all around. The show has been a pure triumph from start to finish, warming the hearts of the predominantly Gen-X crowd. Raves have been coming in throughout the tour, so fans can only hope that the grand welcome they’ve given will inspire the band to stay together for another run. Napolitano’s agent should also be calling the producers of True Blood about a guest spot, where the rock goddess would fit right in as one of the mature, sexy vampire queens.