Concrete Blonde: Live in Brazil

Concrete Blonde
Live in Brazil
Ark 21

Residing in a city currently under the guise of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), I almost feel compelled to throw a barb at this group for having cancelled a recent Toronto gig due to the outbreak. However, after hearing this album, I won’t. I can’t. Lead by Johnette Napolitano, Concrete Blonde is a working band’s R.E.M. — brimming under the surface for years but only hitting it marginally big after years on the road. This latest release, taken from the band’s last stop last August in Brazil, was a litmus test at its finest. Not knowing what to expect or what sort of reaction awaited, Concrete Blonde went ahead with the shows. The result was this double album of what most would call their staples and some rarer material. And for those “Concrete Blonde for Dummies”, yes, “Joey” is on the record!

Backed by longtime guitarist Jim Mankey and drummer Gabriel Ramirez-Quezada, the trio comes out with much applause to “God Is a Bullet” and is firing on all cylinders. Mankey’s crunchy guitar perfectly complemented by Napolitano’s ascending and descending bass lines, the tune rolls along and is a grand opener. And from the initial chorus, the fans are singing along with her. What’s also surprise is the amount of sound the trio creates, sounding much more like a four or even five-piece. Name dropping Tupac Shakur and John Lennon, it seems a very strong opening. “Valentine” follows this up, a slow builder the creeps up on the listener. Napolitano sounds like the Bronx equivalent of Mae West during this track.

Concrete Blonde has some qualities in common with a similar namesake in Blondie. “Tonight” has a winding rock-cum-ska flavor to it, akin to what Debbie and her crew did years before. It’s the desire to fit outside the box that makes the tune’s gallop work so well. “Everybody Know” is far more moody and murky. Napolitano gives it her all here during the middle section, making it quite memorable. As is the lovable “The Vampire Song”, a track that falls in line with Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”. The country sound of “Little Conversations” brings to mind Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” as the crowd claps along to her Lou Reed-like deadpan delivery. “You know I couldn’t say anything in 20 words or less,” she sings with a slight twang. Prior to informing the crowd that a few oldies are coming, “Caroline” is dusted off and given a fresh dose of vitality. Even more amazing is the crowd singing along in unison, as if it was all over Brazilian radio.

The second disc begins with the catchy rocker “Days and Days”, with Napolitano resembling an angry Chrissie Hynde. As the show progresses, it’s apparent how stellar the band sound — tight without being stifling, loose without being careless. “I Was a Fool” has Johnette raising hell with her voice as Mankey gives one blistering guitar riff after another. Unfortunately, the only downside is an bleeped rant against President George W. Bush prior to “Violent”. Although probably necessary, it gives the impression the concert is a radio broadcast and not the real live thing. But it’s only temporary. The first “breather” is the downbeat aura of “Scene of the Perfect Crime”. Its polar opposite ensues as “Your Haunted Head” has that rockabilly punk sound from its beginning, drawing fair comparisons to The Misfits.

The encores of this concert are basically what make the first 80 minutes very enjoyable. Beginning with the crowd pleasing “Mexican Moon” and ending with “Tomorrow Wendy”, Concrete Blonde has outdone themselves on this one. Anthologies and compilations are great, but if a group can’t deliver live, forget it. Johnette delivers time and again on this tour which has given the band a third wind. Oh yes, “Joey” ends the first disc, but it’s about time the other tracks here received their just desserts.