So let’s get one admission out of the way. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Pretenders fan. Have been since 1980 when I bought the self-titled debut. Will likely be until Chrissie Hynde calls it quits. Or I head off to some other (hopefully) celestial plane. I’ve seen the band in a number of incarnations but Monday night provided some insights into what makes them so very special. This was about so much more than the set list. Every year I compile a list of my favorite shows. Pretenders 2018 is currently sitting atop the heap. I’m still buzzing.
It isn’t just because the songs and performance were great. Those things are undeniable. It’s more about how some things crystallized to bring a bigger picture into focus that I so appreciated. I choose to share those musings here as opposed to producing a blow by blow of the 20 song masterpiece the band dished out to the State Theater patrons.
The Twin Cities has a wonderful rock and roll writer named Steven Hyden who recently published a highly recommended book titled “Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock”. In it he riffs on a number of interesting topics. How the days of bigger than life rock gods are no more. Gone, due to a 24/7 media cycle which leaves no secrets. It’s hard to hold on a pedestal someone whose every breakfast is known, who engenders debates over whether they were wearing panties when they climbed out of a limo or opt to use their fame as a platform for personal beliefs. These things tend to diminish our icons to mere mortals like the rest of us.
He also talks about how every generation anchors in the music of its formative years. In other words, there is this period which normally takes place in our mid-teens when we go all in for the music that becomes the soundtrack for our lives. That explains why generations will always argue over what music and bands matter. And why parents will always yell at their kids to “turn that damn noise down!”. It’s not often we come to a band later in life with that same level of passion. Judging by the average age of the audience I’d guess I was not alone in letting this band in long after my framework was built.
Finally, Hyden talks about the scourge of “Dad Rock” and how it gets progressively more difficult as we age to see past the burgeoning belt lines, pattern baldness and wrinkles of our rock and roll heroes. Is it really still my favorite band when the only remaining original member is the drummer? It’s a fine line between going to a museum about the Old West and riding herd on the round up. At some point, you can’t get beyond the artifice. And for that matter, you can’t sit a horse any more!
This is what seemed so remarkable about this Pretenders show. Chrissie Hynde and her band have somehow avoided all that. She is one of the very few who emerged 40 years ago and still have nothing that smacks of museum. If anything, she seems more mystical, graceful and relevant that at any time in her history. Who else is like that? Certainly, there were all the Tom Petty parallels but sadly he’s gone. There’s Springsteen and Dylan. But at the risk of offending anyone, the former’s mystique is based on a greatest hits cavalcade and buckets of sweat. The latter is mercurial and inclined to plum whatever style suits his current fancy whether it adds to the canon or not.
There’s always Patti Smith to put in the conversation at this point. The outpouring of homage paid her on last year’s stop at Northrup is evidence of that. But the difference is that Patti is many things, poet, painter, activist, sculptor and for many years full time Mom. Chrissie is a rocker to her bones. One of a kind.
I found myself thinking back on a recent review I wrote on Jackson Browne. I described how his was an audience that was there to appreciate a walk down the memory lane of simpler, more youthful times. Certainly those Hall of Fame hits belong to a particular era. With The Pretenders, the audience may have looked similar; perhaps a few years younger. But there the similarities ended. This audience was not there to appreciate earlier halcyon days. They were there to rock and they leaped to their feet the instant she strode onto the stage and stayed standing as the band pounded through the show. No grumblings or “Down in fronts” to be heard.
As previously stated, I’ve seen the band a number of times. The fan base is always animated. However, what leaped out at me this time was the level of pure adoration directed at Hynde. Fans continued to push their way up the aisles to the stage, to reach out, to touch her. The black t shirt above torn hip-hugger jeans and thigh high boots said: Don’t Pet Me. I’m Working. The message was not only in keeping with her acknowledged feelings regarding animal rights. It was a literal admonition.
Like a beloved queen Chrissie seems unaffected by years and miles. It isn’t as though she struggles to maintain an image. But she no doubt won a genetic lottery. She touched her subjects, spoke directly to them and in one case hauled a female fan on stage to stand with her as she sang Hymn To Her. The young woman appeared ready to faint away to simply be in her presence.
At another point she was talking about how much she’d loved her tour of the Seward neighborhood earlier in the day. A female fan yelled something about having previously lived there. Hynde walked over and engaged her in conversation, asking why she’d moved. When the answer came that it was due to a divorce, she opined that science listed moving and divorce among life’s most stressful events. However, in her case she’d always looked at those two things as a source of tremendous relief. Chuckles finished, the band launched into My City Was Gone.
This version of The Pretenders featured monster chops and looked the part of a stadium band in its prime. Only Martin Chambers on drums remains of the original line up. Go back and listen to your favorite Pretender tunes. They are built around his horsepower. Chrissie was flanked by Welshman Carwyn Ellis on keys, Nick Wilkinson on bass and the remarkable James Walbourne on guitar. In addition to slashing through searing lead lines, Walbourne was also half of the opening duo The Rails with his wife Kami Thompson (daughter of Linda and Richard Thompson). Usually, when a star brings in a bunch of young hired guns to fill the band, their role is that of frame and matting. Something organic is sacrificed at the alter of convenience and finance. Not the case here. Walbourne was featured like a charter band member and I think James “Honey Man” Scott is up there somewhere smiling with approval.
As much as this was an audience balanced by gender, there was no question that the most fervent fans were women. It was they who packed the front of the stage. Who returned time and again, despite Security’s best efforts to shoo them back to their seats. Who screamed “I Adore You!”. Who literally went to the floor in the aisle to prostrate themselves. Despite my history following the band, I’d never made this connection before. Maybe I’ve just been oblivious.
Certainly there are artists who engender this huge level of reverence in the LBGT community. Think Melissa Ethredge or Joan Armatrading. But this was something wholly different. It seemed the adoration was rooted in a belief that here was a woman who never backed down, who forged her own path, who refused to be compromised or tainted by her success. I’d never considered Chrissie Hynde as such a role model for middle aged women. But there’s no doubt she is. When I got home my wife shared a FaceBook post from one of her 50 something book club friends who had attended. It simply read: “Chrissie Hynde is my Higher Power.”
Monday was a rock show for the ages by one of the last of the independents. It was a wondrous mix of punk to sublime, salted with signature snarls, howls, smiles and grace. The middle song of the first encore was Break Up The Pavement and it seemed she wanted to remind everybody that her band was still about tearing down the infrastructure. The final encore opened with I’ll Stand By You. Everywhere I looked, women leaning against their guys, singing the lyrics to them with all their hearts. How many weddings were built around that particular song?
Chrissie Hynde still transcends and reminds of a time when music was appreciated by album, not Spotify playlist. When bands and artists were far less disposable. Soundtrack to a generation. Rock and roll shaman who refuses to quietly fade into that dark night. Everybody fortunate enough to attend, loves The Pretenders.