Monday, November 8, 2010

JP, Chrissie & the Fairground Boys concert review

My review originally appeared in the Orange County Register and can be viewed here:

Photo by Drew A. Kelley, taken at the Queen Mary Events Park over the summer, courtesy of the Register  

House of Blues
Anaheim, Calif.
Oct. 27, 2010

The story of JP, Chrissie & the Fairground Boys’ formation is something you don’t hear everyday: struggling male musician meets veteran female rock star in a bar, they hit it off romantically but realize their 30-year age difference is too vast to work, so they start a band together instead.

Fidelity!, released this past summer, is the refreshing fruit of Chrissie Hynde and JP Jones’ musical labors. And quite an achievement too, considering the longtime Pretenders leader had never done a true side project in a career that now spans across four decades. Ranging from organic folk-rock to reflective adult-alternative-leaning sounds, the tunes occasionally recall the Pretenders’ underrated 1990 disc Packed! and have drawn comparisons to the Swell Season.

At House of Blues Anaheim on Wednesday, before a mediocre turnout likely due to the unwieldy group name and low-profile radio and sales presence, the quintet formed by the duo gave the album’s upbeat songs a punchier delivery, while the warm, inviting ones came across even more personal.

Taking the stage to carousel music, with roses strewn across the floor and a fairground scene for the backdrop (patterned after the album art and Jones’ Welsh family history), the band started its 75-minute set with “If You Were My Age.” The searing outtake had a late ’60s vibe and spotlighted the fiery fretwork of lead guitarist Patrick Murdoch, who would continue to amaze all evening.

Jones and Hynde’s whiskey- vs. honey-drenched vocal trade-offs meshed well on the rousing rocker and first single “If You Let Me.” Clad in a black tank top and skinny black jeans, she vigorously shook a tambourine as the musicians gave it an added exhilarating kick. “Fairground Luck,” meanwhile, was a prime example of these singer-guitarists’ obvious connection: Jones would turn to face Hynde as he sang lyrics like “could you kiss these lips everyday?”

To introduce the shimmering, contemplative, slide guitar-laden “Meanwhile,” Hynde teased the audience by saying it was about “a woman who will stand by her man forever … sucker!” Though less-informed audience members undoubtedly thought she was about to do “I’ll Stand by You” — a ballad Hynde rarely performs at Pretenders shows — this was not a night to hear selections from her more famous group’s catalog.

When Jones took the lead-vocal reins on a plaintive “Leave Me If You Must,” reminiscent of the Sun Records era, his gruff timbre made it the least interesting of all the Fidelity! songs played. But “Portobello” — a non-album cut about the street in West London’s Notting Hill that Hynde described as a place where “all the cokeheads and drug dealers go” — was a lean and mean, harmony-filled stomper. The equally enticing, jangly fun of another unreleased song, “You’re the One,” proved this outfit has a few aces up its collective sleeves for a second album.

A wrenching “Courage” found Jones providing a passionate vocal while facing Hynde. She countered with her trademark quaver, Murdoch added descending guitar lines, and everyone’s supple harmonies brought it all home. Speaking of harmonies, they nailed the memorable and unusual ones on “Australia” as well.

Come encore time, a simple yet effective “Never Drink Again” was colored by elegant guitar work, while a cover of Moby Grape’s 1968 number “Murder in My Heart for the Judge” was an inspired choice. (Hynde called the San Francisco psychedelic rockers “a great California group from the days when rock ’n’ roll meant something.”)

Finally, JP, Chrissie & the Fairground Boys unveiled what seemed to be an original holiday tune, “Merry Christmas Soon.” The great mid-tempo rocker had ringing guitars, an uplifting message and recalled fellow Welshman Mike Peters of the Alarm. Let’s hope they release it soon.

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