Great Pretenders

Chrissie Hynde, about 20 feet away, taking off her belt, mouthing “fuck” over and over under her breath, downing shots of tequila. In a bar about a ten-minute walk from my house.

You do not get this in the suburbs of Connecticut. Anywhere in Connecticut.

Not the show we saw...

Not the show we saw...

Episode #133 of why I’ll miss Chicago: Local “alternative” rock station WXRT occasionally brings in national acts to local bars, gives away tickets, and tapes the show. I’ve been fortunate enough to score tix to these “Live From Studio X” outings three times (as well as another free show with Los Lobos that was truly kickass), starting with Elvis Costello (I could almost touch him!), then Steve Earle (not as good as the paid gig we saw here). Yesterday, we were fortunate enough to see Ms. Hynde and the latest incarnation of the Pretenders.

In an “unplugged” format, the band mostly played songs from their new album, Break Up the Concrete. The only song off it I knew was the single, “Boots of Chinese Plastic,” which I like. I have never been a huge Pretenders fan, though I always thought their singles were some of the best rock songs on the commercial airwaves at any given time (though “Brass in Pocket” and “My City Was Gone” [interesting tidbit about CH, that song, and a certain blowhard] never did so much for me). “Middle of the Road,” “Back on the Chain Gang,” and “Stop Your Sobbing” are particular favorites. And how can you not respect Hynde? Just staying true to herself and the music for 30 years, still rockin’ and looking good at 57. Then of course there’s the vegan activism, which I’ll say a little bit more about below.

Spreading the word

Spreading the word

So, after a 45-minute wait while a cold Chicago dusk settled down around us, we were let into Martyrs’, the small local club where the band was playing, giving up its off-day between gigs in Chicago and Milwaukee. Chrissie had also spent the day working with PETA, an organization dear to her heart, protesting at the huge McDonald’s just north of downtown. PETA is trying to get the fat-food behemoth to get its chickens from more humane chicken slaughterers (yes, yes, ignore the oxymoron; small steps in this battle). Chrissie’s willingness to appear and to run a contest with PETA made me think she must not have had any trouble with the scotched sexy-vegetable ads from the Super Bowl. Obviously some feminists got the joke and the larger message.

Chrissie (like we’re so close…) wore a “Wear Rubber” t-shirt. The guy at the table with us thought it referred to Akron. I assumed it was a pro-vegan, anti-clothing-from-animal statement. And we all thought it was just one letter away from a comment on birth control.  Turns out the guy and I were both right, as it refers to Rubber City Clothing, a company she supports (no viable website at the moment). In any event, Chrissie kept the shirt on, but her boots and belt soon came off as she tried to get comfortable. She allowed that she and the band were a bit hung over, but that didn’t stop them from playing well while downing shots paid for by appreciative fans. Hynde was also self-deprecating about her singing and her guitar-playing, which brought some shouts of disbelief from the fans.

Walbourne (right): the man can play

Walbourne (right): the man can play

The lineup featured three acoustic guitars, one acoustic bass, and drummer Martin Chambers sitting behind a single snare. The band was tight and at times had a bluegrass sound, thanks to James Walbourne’s turns on the mandolin. Walbourne was an unexpected treat, ripping off a string of tasteful solos. Would love to hear what he does when electrified. And Martin and Chrissie exchanged the kind of acerbic banter that comes with knowing each other for three decades.

The show went on longer than the usual Studio X gigs, which no one seemed to mind. After the band appeared to  exhaust its intended playlist, Chrissie asked for requests, and looked puzzled by one guy’s continued calls for “Keith” or “Keef” or something. One disappointment: an aborted version of “Chain Gang” because Chrissie said she just wasn’t feeling it, and none of the other oldies I like. But the whole vibe of the show made up for any songs not played or gaffes along the way. It was as if we were in Chrissie’s basement, old friends watching her jam and tell some stories and get a little buzzed.

She mentioned her vegan restaurant in Akron, VegiTerranean. According to online reports, she’s looking to open another in Columbus, then  others in various Ohio cities, and perhaps even NYC. Cool. I was also intrigued to see she “stole” one of my ideas, going with a vegan restaurant oriented toward Italian food. Yummy.

The show ended with an XRT DJ trying to interview Chrissie and the band. She bluntly told him his first question was “crap,” which it was, and the guy was never comfortable after that. Especially when Chrissie told him to give his mic to a long-time Chicago fan who was in the audience. Man, XRT might have had the posters on the walls (along with Miller, which wouldn’t let the bar sell anything but its own crappy beers during the show), but this was Chrissie’s evening.

When the music stopped, you’d have thought the band would high-tail it out. Show the night before, partying after, another show the next night. Nah. They stuck around, with Chrissie on stage signing autographs and chatting. She had mentioned one of Chicago’s vegetarian/vegan institutions, the Chicago Diner, earlier in the evening. Samantha went up to tell her about our personal favorite, Karyn’s. She seemed appreciative. All in all, the kind of show some music fans would have paid good money to see, but we got to see for free. More than the music, it was the experience of the event that captivated me: big-name rock star being herself, bullshitting, showing a commitment to her craft and her fans. Quite a lady.

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~ by mburgan on February 17, 2009.

5 Responses to “Great Pretenders”

  1. You lucky dog! I managed to score tickets to opening day at Fenway – face value no less! So there are at least some benefits to being here on the East Coast. Toad’s is still going too – George Clinton is there this week. Maybe we can catch some stuff there…

  2. Sox tickets for Opening Day is pretty cool too, and it will be good to get to Fenway again–assuming we are lucky enough to get tickets at face. Toad’s though, I don’t know; every time I’ve checked the lineup lately, it’s been a little thin. But I will keep an open mind and hopefully someone we both want to see will turn up there.

  3. Yep..it was an incredible time! As Martin said, it was the first time he had seen an audience, and they took full advantage of it. Her voice really was spectacular with the acoustic instruments behind her. And the partying and dancing with her that ensued after was incredible. I have pics if you want them.

  4. David,

    If you have a link to any pics you’ve posted online, send it along.

  5. Would love to see pics!

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