(Concert Review) Pretenders, MASS MoCA, 7.26.19

Chrissie Hynde of Pretenders at MASS MoCA (photo Nooshig Vargabedian)

North Adams, Mass.
Friday, July 26, 2019

Review by Seth Rogovoy

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. – Forty-one years ago, after several false starts, Akron, Ohio-native Chrissie Hynde — having long since moved to London — finally succeeded in forming a band that could realize onstage and in the recording studio the sounds she until then heard only in her head. The eponymous debut album, The Pretenders, with its punk-infused energy and its melodic, New Wave update of British Invasion rock, to this day holds its permanent position at the top of anyone’s list of all-time best debuts.

On Friday night, in a courtyard concert at MASS MoCA on a perfect midsummer’s eve, Chrissie Hynde, now 67, made clear that she still rules as one of the most enduring, towering figures of rock ‘n’ roll. While only Martin Chambers, the phenomenal drummer, remains with Hynde from that original lineup, the current formation of the Pretenders – featuring Nick Wilkinson on bass guitar, James Walbourne on lead guitar, and the multitalented Carwyn Ellis on keyboards, guitar, and percussion – did not miss a step in serving up the band’s patented sounds. And with Hynde in as full voice as she was in 1978 — with her soulful tone and her superhuman vibrato still intact — one wasn’t taken back on a magic carpet of mere nostalgia. Rather, Hynde and audience were fully engaged in the here and now. Songs like “Kid,” “Brass in Pocket,” and “Mystery Achievement” were as urgent and as powerful as when I spun them on my college radio show in in the early 1980s.

Chrissie Hynde of Pretenders at MASS MoCA (photo Kaelan Burkett)

A subverter of stereotypes and fomenter of gender role reversal from day one (made explicit in her cover of the Kinks’ “Stop Your Sobbing,” which served as a kind of template and manifesto for everything that followed), Hynde was decades ahead of her time. Today’s young crop of female-empowerment artists owe a huge debt to Hynde as a songwriter, performer, and role model. And Hynde’s commitment to living her values extends beyond her music. At one point during her concert on Friday night, a moth or some other kind of flying insect landed on her sleeve and made a home there. Rather than brush or flick it off, Hynde, a well-known vegan and animal-rights activist, had her guitar technician gently remove it from her arm and set it free backstage. Her devotion to the Sanskrit principle of ahimsa  — non-violence to animals – even appears in a manifesto on the front page of the Pretenders official website and is spelled out here. Hynde walks her talk in a refreshingly outspoken manner.

Pretenders at MASS MoCA (photo Kaelan Burkett)

The Pretenders’ setlist was jam-packed with fan favorites and nearly all of their most popular hits — including “Talk of the Town,” “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” “Private Life,” “Back on the Chain Gang,” “My City Was Gone,” and “Middle of the Road” — with just a few dips into deep catalog or recent tunes. Hynde seemed genuinely to be having a good time onstage, engaging in freewheeling banter and a lot of laugher with her fellow musicians, and connecting strongly with the ecstatic audience, repeatedly praising the venue and the crowd. The pace was thrilling, the rhythms, sometimes quite complex, were throbbing (kudos to the amazing Chambers and bassist Wilkinson), and the memorable riffs and hooks played by Walbourne were immaculate. There’s even a small exhibit of Hynde’s paintings in one of the galleries, and her self-portraits are magnificent and revealing.

Chrissie Hynde and Pretenders at MASS MoCA (photo Kaelan Burkett)

MASS MoCA has played host to dozens if not hundreds of terrific performances over the years. A few stand head-and-shoulders above all the rest. Patti Smith’s 2000 concert in that same courtyard ranks as one of the greatest of all time – not only at MASS MoCA but anywhere. It still lives on in legend for those who were in attendance that night, and since then people have not stopped talking about it. Wilco has played numerous terrific shows at the venue, but their very first concert was transcendent. Performances by Beck and the National were also quite memorable. Those who were at some or all of those shows were already talking about the Pretenders’ concert being in that league before Friday night’s show even ended. It was truly one for the record books.

Seth Rogovoy has been covering the popular music scene in the Berkshires and the greater region since the mid-1980s.


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