WASHINGTON, December, 27, 2012 —Bands that came out of the LA punk scene of the ‘80s, either managing to survive or never getting fully involved, seem to have a much different aesthetic than their East Coast – or even their Midwestern – counterparts. Take Concrete Blonde. They may not have garnered much success during the LA punk scene, but it’s where they came from.
Concrete Blonde abandoned most of the musical sensibilities of punk to become a more well rounded rock band. But in the process, this band still incorporated much of the style associated with the LA punk movement. During their prime, this created an interesting synthesis for a band that played like one of the better college rock bands, but still possessed a lot of the bite characteristic of an old-style punk band, at least from the standpoint of image.
When they took the stage at the 9:30 Club Monday night, the appearance marked over 20 years since Concrete Blonde was at their peak. Even though they might be a good bit older now than when their album “Bloodletting” signified the apogee of their mainstream success in 1990, they still carry along a lot of the same stage edginess they manifested back in that earlier era.
Despite musically distancing themselves from their vague, punk roots, a lot of that energy is sustained throughout most of their set. Front woman Johnette Napolitano carries herself onstage like the total rock heavyweight that she was and still is. There was absolutely nothing lost in this live performance while she was on stage. She controlled the audience throughout the band’s entire set with a string of power driven songs, dominated in large part by her unique voice.
Although a good bit of this recent show was a musical reflection of of their past, that didn’t stop Concrete Blonde from opening the show with their newest song “Rosalie.” That was an interesting choice as an opener, since it communicated to the audience that the band was beginning its show in the hear and now, rather than featuring a musical retrospective of their beginning. The audience took notice, because this song was something of a departure from the rest of Concrete Blonde’s discography, being softer than even some of their slower songs of the past.
This haunting tune emphasized Napolitano’s vocals, yet is almost felt as if it would have been more appropriate as an encore number rather than an opener. On the other hand, given that “Rosalie,” was probably the least-familiar song for this audience, using it as the band’s opening number was probably the best position for it..
Of course, Concrete Blond also played “I Know the Ghost,” which is off the same EP in the middle of their set. It feels much more like a traditional Concrete Blonde song, if slightly stripped down. Even with the subdued opener though, their set was powerful and driving until the very end of the show. They accomplished this also by playing considerably faster and looser than would seem to be their natural leaning, yet with the same kind of calculated force the band has always shown.
That force clearly comes from the central focus of Concrete Blonde, and that’s Johnette Napolitano. This isn’t to say guitarist James Mankey doesn’t make a significant impact. His clever and intricate guitar skills anchor the band’s sonic barrage, providing the soundstage with a unique feel. But Mankey’s output also feels like the proper amount of instrumental support that’s required to make sure Napolitano remains front and center in the spotlight.
Ultimately, it’s hard to be distracted from Napolitano’s intense musical spirit in the context of a Concrete Blonde performance. Her bigger-than-life presence is simply too strong to allow distractions from anything else. And that’s why many of this band’s songs tend to whirl around her thick bass lines. Napolitano doesn’t do anything particular showy to draw attention to herself. But it’s just who she is in a musical context. When she’s on stage, there’s not much reason for anyone’s attention to lie elsewhere.
Even after 20-plus years performing, punctuated by the occasional hiatus, this Napolitano-centrism will always remain true when it comes to hearing Concrete Blonde, and that’s what drives their live show like their recent appearance at the 9:30 Club.
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