There’s been some pernickety comments in the press reviews of Alone, the latest from The Pretenders, speculating about whether or not they’re even a band. To be frank whoever Chrissie Hynde chooses to have alongside her and in front of Martin Chambers on stage or in the studio are The Pretenders and that’s a damn fact. To be equally frank she’s got a great ear for picking bandmates and the band on stage at a sold out Colston Hall were on superb form. James Walbourne, spellbinding lead guitar; Nick Wilkinson, rock solid bass and Eric Heywood, killer keys and funktastic maracas all ensured the career spanning set was tight, playful; all killer and no substandard throwaway misfires.
Hynde is not the most conventional of singers: whilst she might not be able to do what the legions of big voiced multi-octave scenery chewing divas can do, not a single one the X Factor clones can do what she does. Her voice is as strong now as it ever was, always tremulous but powerful; yearning, soft enough to break your heart and yet that softness sheathing an un-paralleled rock n roll attitude verging on aggression (although not played – check Precious). Hymn to Her started out with just gospel keys for accompaniment and Hynde let her voice fly culminating in a spine tingling crescendo nestling in subtle accompaniment from the band. Private Life was a vast echo chamber of a song with fractured guitar and monsterous bass vibe, Hynde’s voice seemingly disconnected from the subject of the song yet with a sneering edge.
The set featured an enviable catalogue of songs, tunes that were all rooted in the best of American popular music – the styles and genres that became passé after rock n roll became Rock. We had that tantalising Motown backbeat (Don’t Get Me Wrong); country rock, Byrds style (Tequilla); gonzoid rockabilly & roll (Boots of Chinese Plastic) and the timeless Bo Diddley beat with Duane Eddy meets James Burton guitar (Break up the Concrete). Nods to gospel and soul (Back on the Chain Gang) coexisting with primal garage band riffology (Gotta Wait). Regardless of the stylistic roots Hynde’s nous for what makes a classic song shone time and time again – a pop feel (from when pop wasn’t a dirty word), irresistible choruses with lyrics that instantly and unforgettably connected.
Although a seated show each tune saw more and more of the crowd on their feet and dancing, with plenty of unprompted singing and plenty of banter between the crowd and Hynde, shout outs for songs, and general bonhomie culminating in a snog for one lucky fella in the front row. The band were clearly enjoying themselves and the material – Thumbelina included a snatch of Dixie and Chambers delivered a hilarious pastiche of a drum solo to resounding cheers and laughter. No song outstayed its welcome and new material, solo Hynde cuts (Down the Wrong Way “It’s from Sockholm, that’s why you don’t know it”) and the classic hits blended seamlessly.
Anyone’s who’s a massive fan of any particular band goes through a gig mentally ticking off the songs they expected to hear, hoped to hear and never expected to hear. The pleasure of seeing a band with a deep and delightful back catalogue is when they surprise you with yet another killer song, but one you’d totally and inexplicably forgotten. Tonight that song opened the encore: Kid, dedicated to James Honeyman-Scott & Pete Farndon, (“Put the kettle on…we’ll be there soon”) delivered as a chiming, life affirming singalong. Break Up the Concrete was frantically in control and then Hynde’s solo cut Adding the Blue charmingly featured the road crew on hairy arsed gospel backing vocals before the band’s departure.
Of course there was unfinished business and sure enough the band retuned for a final celebratory and sultry version of Brass in Pocket, a timeless classic 45 equal measures of pop and quirk. Arm in arm for the final bow, the band basked in the applause from the grinning crowd – a fitting end to a celebratory evening of genuine quality.
Pix by Shona Cutt
The Pretenders: Colston Hall, Wednesday 11th October 2017