I resemble this remark Johnette Napolitano made in an interview a few years back. Her music with Concrete Blonde was a huge part of my late teenage summers as well as all the other months of those years and on into my 20s. Recently, I have found myself going back to their songs and remembering how they gave me a boost of power at a time when I felt so lost and very powerless. Like a lot of teenagers back in 1990, my first introduction to the band was through the movie "Pump Up the Volume" and the band's phenomenal cover of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows." Soon after, the album "Bloodletting" became the most played cassette tape in my car on long drives home from and back to college, on nights out with friends and on days when I just needed that little surge of power from another source to replenish my own. We all have those bands; the ones that "pump up our volume," make us feel understood and maybe even cooler than we actually are. They speak to us and reach us in a way that nothing else can.
I've followed Napolitano's career as a solo artist maybe not with the same fervor as Concrete Blonde but certainly with the same amount of respect. Her gritty, low down, bluesy, rasp and her ability to sustain a note as if she's got some sort of secondary air intake system, like the gills of a fish or an extra lung, make her a vocalist that very few can touch. She can sing a note straight into your bloodstream. Her songs and delivery are a balance of tough and tender. Her lyrics have thoughtful meaning and weight in a sea of fluff. She's a punk rock, metal-headed, Flamenco-influenced, folk-singing, bad-ass guitarist and, in my book, one of the high holy priestesses of song.
Through the years, I have repeatedly bemoaned the fact that I've never seen Concrete Blonde live, and so there was no way I was going to miss the chance to see Napolitano perform solo at an intimate venue like the Duck Room at Blueberry Hill. Finding out that local musician Jimmy Griffin of the Incurables would be opening with an acoustic set was the cherry on top. There really could not have been a more perfect local pick to open for Napolitano. There is a strong symmetry in their musical aesthetic and lyrical approach.
Don't get me wrong, I love to watch Jimmy rock the hell out with his incredible band but this was my first experience hearing him acoustic and it was spectacular. Paring down songs like "Contrition Blues" and "FM" allowed the spotlight to shine on what a solid lyricist Griffin proves himself to be again and again. Even "Ain't No Heaven for Billionaires" which is already a pretty lightly handled song from an instrumental standpoint, took on a clearer focus with just his voice and guitar driving home the points about the destructive force of excessive wealth. My favorite song of the set was "16 Lines" and its standout line, "I left behind what's left of your heart. . . cause it's too heavy to carry around." When he first came onstage, he joked that all of his songs can be divided into two categories, "songs about breaking up and songs about dying." Those experiences are the ones in life that are often too heavy to keep carrying around and keep all to yourself. I'm glad Griffin leaves them behind in songs for the rest of us.
I know there were some mixed feelings about Napolitano's set, and maybe some folks had a different set of expectations about what the night would hold. For others it's just a matter of music being a subjective beast; what falls flat for one person will resonate with another. I knew going in that there would be a lot of storytelling and reading from her assorted writings. I wasn't surprised at her getting a little tipsy on wine. I knew she would not appreciate photography as she finds it distracting and that she would shut down any other attempts to distract such as folks who feel the need to shout out and hold a conversation with a performer while they are onstage. Although, I did not know that she would handle it as beautifully and with as much humor and patience as she did. I did not expect her to play all of my old favorites from Concrete Blonde but was happy to hear "I Don't Need a Hero," which definitely is in my top five. She delivered "Joey" in a way that made me forget how the radio overplayed the hell out of it and brought out the delicate angst of the song.
She told us stories about a former drug dealer and his simultaneously hilarious and frightening obsession over a length of yellow rope, her embarrassment at having to leave her place in the audience at a taping of "The People's Court" because of a coughing fit (Gotta show your respect for Judge Wapner, ya know?), her love of Billie Holiday and her first-hand experience with supernatural happenings at the Driskell Hotel in Austin, Texas, which led to the song "Ghost of a Texas Ladies Man." She spoke passionately about the Bush administration's plan a few years back to turn Joshua Tree National Park, where Napolitano makes her home, into a garbage dump for L.A. and the importance of protecting our national natural treasures as a lead in to the ever so lovely, "Rosalie."
She talked about the many soldiers who write to her and thank her for her activism for peace and how much that means to her. She waxed poetic about her love for flamenco, even showing some basic steps and joked about how her teacher in Spain kept telling her, "Your memory is shit" and how she retorted back, "I've been in a rock band for 30 years. I barely have two brain cells to rub together." She shared that flamencos respect American blues because, "it's basically the same birthplace of the (two) musics. You're picking stuff in a field for rich people and all you have are your hands and your feet (claps and stomps) and that is how flamenco was born and that's how American Blues was born." They'd ask, "Can you sing the blues?" and her response was, "Can I sing the fucking blues? Are you fucking crazy?" and then let loose with a primal blues-curdled note. She continued, "It's not just about being loud. It's about 'duende'. It's about the spirit of it."
All in all, it was a night of stories both spoken and sung, and I enjoyed every single second of it. Napolitano ended her set with what I found to be a very raw and touching tribute to Linda Ronstadt, stricken with Parkinson's and unable to sing anymore. Her voice broke several times covering a few lines of "Long, Long Time" and she was visibly shaken. After several moments of booming applause, whistles and hoots of appreciation, it became clear that there would be no encore. For some in the crowd that might have been a disappointment. For others it was an opportunity to pick the night apart and speculate if she was too drunk, too exhausted or too emotional to come back onstage.
To me, it was no big surprise at all. It illustrates yet another thing that I love about Johnette Napolitano. She "Frank Sinatra's" her way through life and this crazy business; she does it her own damn way and with no apologies. I left the Duck Room feeling lucky to have been part of such a bizarre and beautiful show and that she openly shared so much of her "duende" with us all.