Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Pat Benatar, Blondie concert review

Photo by Paul Bersebach, the Orange County Register
A version of my review originally appeared in the Register

Pat Benatar, Blondie, The Romantics
Pacific Amphitheatre, Costa Mesa
July 26

Two street smart rock gals, who launched their music careers a few years apart in New York City during the ‘70s, went head to head in concert for the first time on Sunday night. But only one emerged the victor.

Blondie – led by Deborah Harry – emerged from the punk scene and found mainstream success amid the burgeoning New Wave era. The band fell apart in 1982, but half the members reunited for 1999’s uneven “No Exit” album and scored a No. 1 single in England with “Maria.” They put out “The Curse of Blondie” four years later and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The more successful of the pair was Pat Benatar. She initially delved in hard rock, moved into pop territory and saw her career rise simultaneously with a nascent MTV (more on that later). After notching more than a dozen top 40 hits throughout the ‘80s, Benatar settled into domestic life with band mate husband Neil Giraldo and did albums and tours sporadically over the next two decades.

This Costa Mesa gig had the loudest volume level among the five fair shows I’ve attended so far (Benatar’s three-piece group used six large amplifiers). Due to a third act (The Romantics) serving as opener, it also lasted the longest, wrapping up at 10:30 p.m.

Benatar kicked off the 65-minute, 11-song performance, appropriately enough, with “All Fired Up.” Giraldo strolled onstage and hammered away at electric guitar. Fashioning himself in the Eddie Van Halen mold, he tends to showboat a little too much, sometime overshadowing the wife – the person who everyone came to see. Apparently Benatar has no problem with it: the shows are co-billed and she eagerly gets out of it his way during flashy solos (“Shadows of the Night,” “Hit Me with Your Best Shot”).

In sharp contrast to Harry, Benatar provided anecdotes for many tunes. She explained that “You Better Run” was the second music video to air on MTV (and since the first one was techno-pop group The Buggles, Giraldo was the first guitarist to appear on the cable channel). The galloping song sounded monstrous; the singer’s scratchy wail, never better. Equally powerful was “Invincible,” where her gritty delivery rose above the metallic fray. A percolating “Love is a Battlefield” was also among several strong standouts.

Perched on stools, the music couple relayed how they first met and played together before “We Belong.” Giraldo started a drum machine and played acoustic guitar on the warm and inviting, sway-worthy tune. Benatar gave her usual spiel about wanting to drop one of her biggest chart hits from the set and hating a particular line that the audience should sing. Giraldo said if there were any “Guitar Hero” enthusiasts present, they should keep a close eye on him so they really learn how to play it. The selection? “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” The band played it with authority.

Haunting, slow build rocker “Hell is For Children,” inspired by a newspaper article on child abuse, saw Giraldo move from piano to guitar. Benatar dedicated it to all kids at risk. Time and again, Benatar impressively nailed the quasi-operatic vocal trills recorded a quarter century ago. The encore section didn’t slacken the pace, either as “Promises in the Dark” and “Heartbreaker” kept the intensity level high. Overall, a knockout punch.

Blondie’s hour-long, 13-song set had more valleys than peaks. Performing in front of a graffiti collage backdrop, they opened with a lumbering “Call Me,” where Harry’s soft vocals were barely decipherable. A tight “Hanging on the Telephone” snapped things back into place. Then Blondie immediately lost the crowd’s attention by playing the frothy “Two Times Blue,” a minor dance club hit from Harry’s middling 2007 solo effort “Necessary Evil.”

Harry, now 64, sported sunglasses and was casually dressed in a black skirt, tank top and sneakers. She often used a spoken/sung approach (“Picture This”) or simply held back (“Atomic”) to hit the higher notes, with occasional background help from lead guitarist Paul Carbonara and a new young keyboardist.

Founding guitarist and co-songwriter Chris Stein barely moved onstage and left all the heavy work to Carbonara (he and bassist Leigh Foxx have now been in the band longer than the original incarnation). Amazing drummer Clem Burke, the other founder, is still the saving grace of Blondie. His precision beats and stick twirls were usually more interesting to watch than Harry’s awkward stage moves (30+ years on, you’d think she’d be comfortable by now) and forced audience interaction.

“The Tide is High,” with a spacey new bridge, pointless bass solo, a bit of the Staples Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” and Harry’s added rap, was a train wreck. “You’re Too Hot,” a sort of punkish second track inexplicably pulled off “Evil,” proved dreadful. The disjointedness continued on “Rapture.” Harry sang while staring down at the stage and did the rap part slower than usual. The song came to a complete stop twice: first when Stein played a bluesy solo and then Harry updated a second rap verse. The confused crowd did not know when to applaud.

Toward the end, Blondie partially rebounded on a frantic “One Way or Another” (augmented by loud audience sing along; Harry’s scatting was unfortunate). The solid extended encore of “Heart of Glass” turned the Pac Amp into a dance floor, especially when it segued into a memorably lush take on Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.”

Detroit’s The Romantics got the joint jumping early with a raucous half hour set revolving around its early ‘80s heyday. Clad in sharp black attire, front man Wally Palmer and two other original members (plus an animated drummer, whose chair was once occupied by Blondie’s Burke) started with a blazing “Rock You Up,” from 1983’s “In Heat.”

Wisely abandoning the new wave studio sheen, the tunes benefited from a garage rock vibe live – especially “Talking in Your Sleep” and the Ray Davies-penned “She’s Got Everything.” A bluesy “61/49,” the title track to 2003’s excellent comeback album, showed the guys are still making vital music. The energetic “What I Like About You” saw The Romantics leave on a high note.

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