Chrissie Hynde | Image by City Paper Digi-Cam™
I was pretty pumped when it was announced that the 2008 Noise in the Basement Creative Conference would be bringing the Pretenders to Baltimore. You couldn't, however, help but raise an eyebrow that the Hold Steady would not only be sharing Friday's bill at Sonar, but would be headlining. Even if the Pretenders appeared at the top of listings for the show, it still seemed a little backward, if not kind of galling, to make them an opening act for a much younger indie band. Never mind that one act was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame before the other had released its second album; Chrissie Hynde has a greater gift for lyrical wit and killer riffs in one fingernail than Craig Finn has in his whole body. So let's hope the running order was merely arranged that way because of a scheduling conflict, and not some twisted idea of which band would be the bigger draw. Still, seeing a band of the Pretenders' stature in a room as relatively intimate as Sonar for an affordable ticket price was too good to pass up, so I was there with bells on.
The Pretenders were in Baltimore promoting a new album,
Break Up the Concrete
, and so new material took up much of the band's set. And while it's excellent that a band 30 years deep into its career continues to write new songs and resists becoming a straight-up oldies act, the album isn't out until October, so there been a chance to get familiar with anything from it, save the single "Boots of Chinese Plastic."
For most of those 30 years, the only founding members left in the band have been Chrissie Hynde and drummer Martin Chambers, following the drug-related deaths of guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon in the early '80s. The two classic new-wave albums made by the original lineup still tower over the rest of the band's catalog, and made for many of the highlights of the set, including "Day After Day," which Hynde dedicated to Honeyman-Scott and Farndon.
The hired hands that fill out the lineup sounded good, and the addition of a steel guitarist nicely emphasized the twang of songs like "Back on the Chain Gang." But whoever was working the soundboard at Sonar on Friday seriously dropped the ball, because the lead guitarist was mixed so high that at some times it felt like he was drowning out every other instrument. At 56, Hynde's voice remains in fine form, with her subtle phrasing still impeccable, but her delicate midrange shouldn't have had to compete with a backing player for volume. As a result, light-as-air grooves like "Don't Get Me Wrong" came off clumsier than they should have, and it was difficult to totally get into the band's set for most of the time it was onstage. So it wasn't until the encore, when it blasted back into action with the driving 7/8 riff of our favorite Pretenders tune, "The Wait," that I truly started to rock out and the show reached its potential. Given that there were a couple hits left unsung that I would've liked to hear, I'm still a little bitter that the Pretenders might have played longer if they didn't have to make way for another band.
After the Pretenders, about half of the audience that had packed into the venue started to file toward the exits. But I stuck around for a little bit of the Hold Steady's set, to give the band a fair shot, despite the fact that a show seen and an album heard years ago decisively turned me off of the Hold Steady's lazy riffs and tuneless talk-singing. And it did little to dissuade my suspicions that the band's whole "bar band" angle is a bit of an ironic shtick when I saw that they've now added a big '70s arena rock gong to its stage show. The members of Hold Steady might as well wear "More Cowbell" T-shirts if all they're going to do is mock the clichés of classic rock bands they're not fit to open for, much less co-headline with.