Pretenders: Loose in L.A. comes from a 2003 performance at the Wiltern Theater when the band was touring behind the 2002 album Loose Screw. The setlist is fairly evenly divided between songs from that release and older fan favorites, and Chrissie Hynde and crew are like a well-oiled machine as they work through 26 songs in nearly two and a half hours.
But something is missing, the machine seems to be on an automatic setting. Though each band member is playing proficiently, no one really seems to be playing with the others—there’s no interplay. A few times during the show, Hynde references the fact that she’s experiencing vocal troubles and that she had to have a shot of cortisone so that she’d be able to sing. Perhaps that’s the reason for the perfunctory performance all around, but it feels like everyone onstage has lost the spark.
Part of this sense of malaise could be the stage itself, which is simple and stark, a shiny slab lit quite well, but strictly for functionality. Part of it could be the staging; everyone is spread out, which fuels the lack of interaction and creates a distance that can be heard in the songs. Add to that the way in which this concert was filmed: Long, overhead shots, shots focusing on one person at a time or on centered on the gulf of the space between Hynde and bassist Andy Hobson, cuts to pointless shots from the rear of the stage at inopportune moments (during guitar solos, for instance). It looks a lot like a the camera work you might see for a musical performance on a late night talk show, except that this is not one short song in a small television studio.
Maybe it’s the fact that the band was aware it was being filmed that caused the problem. There are several times during the show where expressions of self-consciousness cross their faces. Or maybe it’s just Hynde’s voice that caused the band the err on the side of caution and keep things calm. Pretenders have never been about flash, anyway, you know. Hynde counts in—1,2,3,4—and the song kicks off, she sings, someone solos, the song ends, and she counts in again for the next one. It’s not entirely by-the-numbers, of course.
Hynde has written too many great songs for a Pretenders’ show to every truly sound stale, but very few of the numbers here rise above the overall feeling of rote, mechanical operation. Even for the musically upbeat, energetic songs, such as “Don’t Get Me Wrong” (which stops mid-song to rework the arrangement into something a little lounge-y, like the All Mighty Senators, who were the opening act on this tour), “Kid” (which Hynde dedicates to James Honeyman-Scott and Pete Farndon), or “Rebel Rock Me”, band members barely crack a smile, let alone display any energy. In songs like “”My City Was Gone” or “Back on the Chain Gang”, where we want more passion, we get merely passable.
After the obligatory crowd-connector of “I’ll Stand By You”, things pick up just slightly for the show-closers, but half of that is the crowd’s excitement at its familiarity with “Middle of the Road”. The encore of “Mystery Achievement” and “Brass in Pocket” is buoyed by audience participation, and probably by the band’s knowledge that the show’s almost over, as well. Those two songs are clearly the best of the night, but even so they still don’t reach the level you expect. It’s good. In fact, if you are talking about songwriting or the technical prowess of the musicians, it’s great. It’s just not alive enough for a Pretenders’ live show. It’s definitely not “loose”.
The blu-ray of Pretenders: Loose in L.A. boasts the expected clean, sharp visual quality, and a choice between DTS HD Master Audio, 5.1 Surround or Stereo. Bonus materials are lacking, however, particularly for a blu-ray. They consist of a video for “You Know Who Your Friends Are”, 12 minutes of backstage interviews, and an inexplicable montage of concert footage.