Clad in solid black and lit almost entirely in red.
|photo by Chris Sikich
Was anyone actively clamoring for a Concrete Blonde reunion tour? Given the lackluster showing the last time they tried getting back together, in 2004, the answer would seem to be no. But try telling that to the wildly enthusiastic crowd that packed New York's Webster Hall on Thursday. Try telling that to frontwoman Johnette Napolitano, who was by turns regal and self-deprecating. Now in her mid-50s, she came off as fiery and funny, and she rocked the hell out her bass and a leg-baring cape dress.
So here we are, 20 years after Bloodletting. Vampires are big business and Napolitano doesn't have anything better to do, so why not get the band back together and devote a 16-city tour to the band's commercial peak, which brought a welcome goth-pop infusion to Napolitano's alterna-blues wail and Jim Mankey's punk-metal guitar vamps?
Rather than re-create the record, Napolitano, Mankey and drummer Gabriel Ramirez (who joined the band more than a decade after their heyday) used Bloodletting as a jumping-off point. Clad in solid black and lit almost entirely in red, they captured the spirit without being a slave to it.
First track "Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)" opened the show to great effect, with Napolitano's doomy bass putting the crowd on notice that the album-cycle conceit wasn't a lark. But then "Joey," their only Hot 100 track, came next it's ninth on the record suggesting this wasn't going to be a by-the-numbers affair. By "Days and Days," four songs in, Napolitano was in full voice and had the room at her feet. Though she fumbled a verse a couple of times and forgive her, it was only the second show of the tour she never lost the audience's adulation.
As you'd expect, most of Bloodletting got an airing the haunting "Caroline" was a notable exception, dropped from the setlist at the last minute and provided many of the high points, including the moody "Darkening of the Light," a full-throated "I Don't Need a Hero" and a shiver-inducing "Tomorrow Wendy."
But the rest of the group's discography was well represented, with selections that fit thematically, like "Ghost of a Texas Ladies Man" (from 1992's Walking in London) and "Ghost Riders in the Sky" (from '04's Mojave). They drew four tracks from '89's Free, including a blistering rendition of "God Is a Bullet," two apiece from their self-titled '86 debut ("Still in Hollywood," the encore, pleased no one more than a drunken young woman in the front row, who'd been calling for it all night) and '93's Mexican Moon (a stellar "Heal It Up). Even a latter-era album track like "When I Was a Fool" (from '02's Group Therapy) sounded like a classic.
In such company, the covers were superfluous but not unexpected: a plodding run-through of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows" and a pleasant-enough take on Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing." The audience a good mix of balding 40-somethings and worshipful younger fans ate those up, too.
Mostly, the night underlined the injustice of Concrete Blonde's absence from the playlists of stations that purport to play the rock you grew up with. Truth be told, Bloodletting sounds somewhat dated those huge drums and proud guitar solos didn't survive into 1991, let alone the 21st century but it'd sound great pouring out of car speakers alongside Led Zeppelin and Heart. Try it sometime.