By Niki D’Andrea
Shortly after the last Concrete Blonde reunion tour (for the Group Therapy album in 2002), front woman Johnette Napolitano gave me an interview for a small press publication called Musik Kulture magazine (now-defunct). One of the things she said toward the end of the interview was, “If the world went to hell tomorrow, we’d all be out in the desert, stomping our feet and clapping our hands.”
This sentiment encapsulates the performer Napolitano is today – gone are the lights, the smoke, the band, the glam, and the high-falutin’ productions from her Concrete Blonde days. In their place is an older, wiser woman with just a guitar and a huge voice. Watching her perform solo acoustic at SxSW was like sitting in on the coolest house party jam ever.
The show took place on the 18th Floor of the Hilton Garden Inn. When Napolitano took the stage shortly after 1 a.m., there was a substantial but intimate crowd gathered. People started screaming out accolades before she even picked up her guitar.
“Johnette, you are the sexiest woman on Earth!” someone shouted.
To which Napolitano responded, “You’re getting me hot and bothered already. Don’t get me started, bitch.”
The back-and-forth banter between performer and audience would continue all evening, in-between Napolitano’s spirited, stripped-down songs. At one point, an audience member shouted “Just play!” while Napolitano was talking, and the singer retorted, “Don’t tell me to just play. Fuck you! This is my show.”
Johnette Napolitano: Fuck you, it's her show.
That it was. Her stellar set list included “Mexican Moon,” “Amazing,” “The Scientist,” “Joey” (a shout-out request, of course), “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” and “Carry Me Away” (a song Napolitano says she’d been unable to play for almost a year, after hurting her hand at Burning Man).
During “Mexican Moon,” the audience screamed and roared so much that Napolitano got caught up in the spirit herself, stomping from one end of the stage to the other in her bare feet, fiercely strumming her guitar, and whipping her long, dark hair all over the place. It was so intense that afterwards Napolitano thanked the audience profusely for the energy exchange, and announced, “I fucked my guitar out of tune.”
After a quick re-tuning, Napolitano resumed her set, along with tales of traveling in Europe, working with Nine Inch Nails’ Danny Lohner, and co-writing a song about New Orleans with Tina Rose, who is Leon Russell’s daughter.
On the subject of Leon Russell, Napolitano said, “I don’t know why those Grammy people – those shove-a-brass-statue-up-my-ass committee – don’t give Leon Russell a lifetime achievement award…I think he’s the best songwriter living in America today.”
During her performance of the song she co-wrote with Tina Rose, Napolitano interjected, “This is what Tina sang to me…that’s Leon Russell’s daughter, bitch!”
Napolitano ended her set with an a capella version of “Tomorrow, Wendy.”
When she left the stage, the entertainment continued, as Billboard magazine editor Tamara Conniff jumped onstage to proclaim her love for Napolitano. “There would be no women in rock without Concrete Blonde!” she announced. “Johnette, please come out and sing for us again. I’ll take my clothes off!”
Before Conniff could remove anything besides her jacket, Napolitano came back onstage. She insisted Conniff stay onstage with her while she sang Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz,” and comically changed the lyrics to be more Earth-friendly: “Oh lord, won’t you buy me an olive oil-powered Mercedes Benz…oh lord, won’t you buy me a solar-powered TV…Oprah Winfrey is trying to call me…I’ll wait for Oprah to call until I’m 103…”
Then Napolitano started dancing with Conniff, shaking her booty and bumping it up against her. Conniff tried to bump back with her own booty, but Napolitano warned her, “You can’t fight this ass. This is the mighty war ass.”
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Billboard editor Tamara Conniff and Napolitano, shortly before Conniff got "the mighty war ass."
And that was how the show ended. The gig was so intimate, intense, and insightful that I almost felt bad for the people who were packed into dark, hot clubs watching other bands from the back of the bar.
This was Napolitano’s only “official” performance at SxSW, but I spoke with Napolitano’s manager after the show, and he informed me that she’s in Austin all week and will probably perform a couple other “unofficial” gigs. So keep your eyes out and your ears open.
Johnette Napolitano performs "Joey" at SxSW: