LAST WEEK, LIVE

Fittingly, the band closed with its first hit, "Take It Easy," getting the biggest cheers of the night by switching "standing on a corner in Tempe, Arizona" for boring old Winslow.

The Pretenders
Hayden Square Amphitheatre
June 15, 1994

Ah, yes, it was the great Pretender--Chrissie Hynde, that is--piloting the sixth version of her 15-year-old group. And what a vision she was, all dolled up in black boots, blue jeans, faux biker jacket with lace sleeves, and her trademark, low-cut bangs snipped just enough to let that black eyeliner do its work. Hynde prowled the stage like a female Keith Richards, breathing new balls into trad-rock power poses and grinding out the rhythm chords on her Telecaster.

She was great to watch. Cool as ever, the supreme rock being, part heart-wrenching songbird, part butch ber-goddess.

Which did nothing to help the fact that the first five songs sounded like shit. Though it wasn't the band's fault--and admittedly, outdoor shows can be rough going--you'd think a big-ticket group like the Pretenders could get a sound man who realized there were other instruments besides just drums that needed to come through the PA.

As it was, classics like "Message of Love" and "Talk of the Town" were skewed pastiches of their former selves; it wasn't until "I Go to Sleep" that someone apparently figured out which knobs controlled vocals and guitar. Hynde's timeless voice was superb, as strong and unique now as it was back in 1980, when Nick Lowe described her appeal as "the girl behind the counter at Sears singing to herself when she thinks no one else is listening."

But there were plenty of people listening last Wednesday; a sell-out crowd jammed the Amphitheatre and every available terrace and balcony as mist from the bordering bar patios floated down and planes skimmed low overhead into the sunset. Drummer Martin Chambers, an original Pretender, was behind Hynde for the first time since 86, and the only musician onstage (other than Chrissie) who seemed to be particularly into what he was doing that night. Yes, the band rocked sufficiently, the band played all the right notes, the band didn't try to upstage the boss, but for many of the songs, there was a feeling of emotional distance from the material, as if the members had no desire to transcend the fact that they were hired professionals and actually sweat a bit. Particularly bovine was spike-haired, leather-trousered bassist Andy Hobson (late of the Primitives), who shuffled back and forth apparently trying to look cool and detached, but coming off more like some New Wave zombie.

But to stand there and listen to hit after hit reel off of Hynde's barbed tongue was to hear a body of work pass before your ears. "My City Was Gone," "Bad Boys Get Spanked," "Don't Get Me Wrong," "Precious," "Cuban Slide," "Middle of the Road" and the brand-new "Night in My Veins" were a few that had the crowd slathering praise.

At one point, Hynde asked the audience, "How many of you saw the original Pretenders? This one's for you," and launched into "Kid" from the band's debut album. (Guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon--once Hynde's lover--died from drug overdoses in 82 and 83, respectively). Sure, she probably does the same intro at every show, but she did sound a little more tender than at any other time in the night. "Kid" is a crystal-perfect work of pop emotion, pure, shimmering melancholy wrapped in a melody that defines "hook." Thankfully, new guitarist Adam Seymour (who vaguely resembles Jon Lovitz) did not bow to sacrilege and played Honeyman-Scott's original solo note for note; it's one of those classic breaks that is a work within a work.

When encore time came around--and you knew it would--Chrissie got behind the drums (saying that "it's only a drum kit, that's not a real instrument") for about 30 seconds of something that sounded kind of like "Wipeout," then emerged for a low-key "Back on the Chain Gang" and "Stop Your Sobbing." But the people demanded more, and Hynde came back out with only a mike in hand for "Brass in Pocket," gyrating through the lyrics with her own personal brand of sign language. The line "I gotta have some of your attention--give it to me" was a pointless plea; Hynde had had it for the last hour and a half.

The Grays
The Roxy
June 17, 1994

While most people were wandering around last Friday night wondering what was happening with O.J. Simpson, the Grays were center stage at the Roxy, hypothesizing. Guitarist/bassist Jon Brion dedicated a blistering version of "Nothing Between Us" to the former sports hero, his late wife and her male friend, opening up the song to all sorts of new lyrical meanings. The band's date had been twice rescheduled--from a headlining gig at the Roxy to one at the Mason Jar, and then finally back at the Roxy supporting the headlining Smithereens--yet the Grays turned enough heads during their brief set to make you forget who else was on the bill.

Those who came to see the Grays solely on the strength of the current alternative hit, "Very Best Year," or remembered singer Jason Faulkner from his stint in Jellyfish, were getting only a third of the story. The band houses three talented vocalists/songwriters whose musical tastes are happily not polar opposites. This unified front resulted in gorgeous psychedelic harmonies, especially on the set's opening one-two punch: "Everybody Knows" and "Same Thing." Faulkner and Brion also traded instruments several times, and both displayed the same fluid McCartney/Colin Molding bass-playing style. The real stunner was Brion on lead guitar, wrenching his ax as if it were a boa coiling itself around him.

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