"Thank you for making my day," rock icon Chrissie Hynde told the crowd at the Riviera Sunday night as she left the stage at the end of the first proper Pretenders gig in Chicago since 2006.
The feeling seemed mutual, as the packed theater cheered energetically throughout the band's set even though the song list played down the hits in favor of new material, lesser known singles and strong album cuts that may or may not have been familiar to most in attendance.
After a brief and entertaining opening set from Southern-fried indie rockers American Bang, Hynde took the stage with one other Pretenders mainstay, original drummer Martin Chambers, and more recent additions James Walbourne on guitar, Nick Wilkinson on bass and Eric Heywood on pedal steel. The group kicked off the show with two raucous rockabilly numbers from their 2008 release, "Break Up the Concrete," a record that finds Hynde sounding her most unrestrained since the early 80s. The jittery "Boots of Chinese Plastic," a clever play on the classic Bob Dylan track "Boots of Spanish Leather," set the scene, while the spastic rave-up of "Don't Cut Your Hair," which Hynde dedicated to all the "gentlemen" in the audience, kept the momentum going. There was a humor in these tracks that hasn't been present in most of the band's output over the years, with the first namedropping various spiritual mantras and the latter giving Hynde the opportunity to spout lines such as, "From Ipanema to the Copacabana, the monkeys give their asses for a piece of banana."
Aside from playing all of the strongest cuts from "Concrete," Hynde and the band completely ignored material past the mid-80s, focusing on early favorites such as "Kid" and "Day After Day," which were both dedicated to the late original Pretenders, Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott.
The band's biggest hits were present but scarce, with straightforward versions of "Back on the Chain Gang," "Don't Get Me Wrong" and "Brass in Pocket" (Hynde: "Let's get this one out of the way") probably being the only cuts recognizable to the most casual of fans.
The biggest surprise of the night came in the form of "Cuban Slide," a non-LP track that appeared only on the band's 1981 EP, "Extended Play." The track's Bo Diddley-inspired beat fit in nicely with the like-minded "Concrete" tracks, particularly the title track, a highlight that ended the pre-encore set.
The hardest-hitting moments came during the two encores, though, which found Hynde and company tearing through four rockers from the 1980 debut. "The Wait," "Tattooed Love Boys" and "Precious" were delivered with as much firepower as ever, while the intense, slightly eerie "Up the Neck" was perhaps the night's biggest stunner, ending the Pretenders' latest visit to Chicago on just the right note.
Hynde has stated that one of her greatest musical strengths has always been the ability to get the most out of her band mates, which made a lot of sense after watching newcomer Walbourne tear through blistering solos on "Rosalee" and "Thumbelina," during which she seemed to be just as entranced as the crowd. Walbourne, who replaced long-time guitarist Adam Seymour, stood out as a critical asset to the band and one that the lead Pretender will no doubt want to keep around.
At one point during the show Hynde directly addressed her fallen band mates Farndon and Honeyman-Scott, quipping, "We'll be there soon, get the kettle on." Considering Sunday night's proof that the 57-year-old and her troupe sound as essential as ever, let's hope she's dead wrong.
The Pretenders at the Riviera Theatre, Chicago, IL, February 15, 2009 - setlist (not in exact order): Boots of Chinese Plastic, Don't Cut Your Hair, Kid, The Nothing Maker, Love's a Mystery, Back on the Chain Gang, Message of Love, The Last Ride, Talk of the Town, Rosalee, One Thing Never Changed, Don't Get Me Wrong, Day After Day, Brass in Pocket, Cuban Slide, Thumbelina, Break Up the Concrete. First encore: The Wait, Tattooed Love Boys. Second encore: Precious, Up the Neck