Concrete Blonde + Rusti LoveCity: Tulsa, Oklahoma
Venue: Cain's Ballroom
"Sometimes I feel like an evolutionary rejectThere are some shows where you walk out of the club and think, "Geez, where's Denny's? I'm starving." And then there are shows that keep you up for the rest of the night, maybe even the next. In Tulsa's historic Cain's Ballroom, famous for being one of the hearths of Western Swing, seasoned veterans Concrete Blonde and Rusti Love put on the second kind of concert. The show was definitely not for Republicans and handshaking Moral Majority members. Both Love (a Tulsa native) and Concrete Blonde bassist/vocalist Johnette Napolitano are women who would make John Ashcroft and Oral Roberts wax furiously incoherent. Love hit the stage with an exuberant, celebratory verve that combined the rawness of Janis Joplin with the power of a gospel singer and the boisterousness of Aretha Franklin. She is the kind of singer the mainstream has forgotten to appreciate, whose voice drips with country pathos, gospel vigor, and bluesy grit, while her stage presence exudes everyday sensuality -- she even hugged a guy in the audience to her chest (à la Bette Midler) and introduced her guitarist as a "nasty, nasty, nasty man." Her set was all blues and old time rock and roll -- and not that Bob Seger old time rock and roll stuff, by her own admission. She opened with three screaming originals and closed the set with brilliant covers of Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Her cover of Joplin's "Say It's Over" was a clean, straight tribute, but her cover of Hendrix's "Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire" had her fingerprints all over it, starting out with an anxious mid-tempo groove before leaping to Jimi's blistering speed after the bridge (as a drummer, it was especially exciting to watch skin-slapper Ron Macrury fire off Mitch Mitchell licks). Love was also backed up by keyboardist John Glaser, who did a fine job of keeping the band tight and on its toes, and Alan Ransom, a solid bassist who wore one of the best t-shirts I've seen in long time -- black with that famous picture of Johnny Cash flipping off the cameraman on it. After Love's set, Concrete Blonde, Napolitano plus the versatile Jim Mankey on guitar and Gabriel Ramirez on drums, took the stage and unleashed a rather different kind of energy. While Love was sassy and self-assured, her counterpart, Napolitano, was passionate, conflicted, committed. In a live clip on the band's website, she tells off an entertainment-seeking spectator, saying that she didn't start touring again after an eight-year absence to be merely nostalgic. "I came here because I'm pissed and I have something to say," she says, and then she gives a quick expletive-punctuated critique of the current resident of the White House. This kind of brassy attitude has been a trademark of Napolitano's music and performance since even before Concrete Blonde hit the proverbial big time in the early nineties. In the crowd, I met a long-time fan who saw the band play Houston a couple years before their breakout Bloodletting album was released. "What drew me to [Napolitano] was her anger and the way she grappled with issues of faith and women's issues," she said. Indeed, Johnette Napolitano's musical lineage would include Joni Mitchell's unflinching honesty, Lou Reed and Patti Smith's street sense, and the political marrow of Midnight Oil and the Dead Kennedys. After opening with a mid-tempo, more lyrical cut from their current album, Group Therapy, the band jumped right into the rousing "God Is a Bullet", a song that eerily fits this historical moment like a hefty pair of Doc Martens despite being nearly a decade old. It illuminates the unnerving costs of the abuse of police power in neighborhoods and the communal violence such abuse can feed, warning that the dead young man on the street "could have been your brother." The chorus ends with the spooky lines, "God is a bullet / Have mercy on us, everyone." What makes the song especially poignant is that it points a finger at the small-man syndrome that seems to underlie "official" force and violence. It is a chilling reminder of how perceived privilege and firearms can ruin whole chunks of the world. As far as socially conscious American music is concerned, this song should be mentioned in the same breath as "For What It's Worth", "American Pie", and "What's Going On?" As with Love's set, the Concrete Blonde set included some rather well-picked covers. They played a moving version of the Rolling Stones' "As Tears Go By", George Harrison's cautionary "Beware of Darkness", and Leonard Cohen's blunt critique of American democratic capitalism, "Everybody Knows". In addition to these covers and newer material, they played a generous number of songs from previous albums, including their most commercially successful songs, "Someday" (the song that initially piqued my interest in the band) and "Joey", a stirring song about the regrets of relationships gone bad and the drive to find healing. Even though Napolitano announced that the song had "nothing to do with Joey Ramone," the band played the second half of the song at breakneck speed, as if in tribute to Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny, and Co. The crowd favorite, however, had to have been "Bloodletting", a thunderous, labyrinthine vampire song that has "threatening female sexuality" written all over it -- if John Ashcroft got nervous about the exposed breasts of Justice in his office building, you can bet he would just faint at the lyrics to this song. It was definitely not a night of music-as-entertainment/commodity. It was a night of music-as-experience. As far as I know, Janis Joplin and Patti Smith never played a bill together, but if they had, it would have been something like this show.
Living in this hi-tech world"
-- Widespread Panic