Any doubts that Concrete Blonde might have mellowed as a rock band were put to rest in Brisbane’s Hi-Fi Bar on Tuesday night. So too any doubts not already dispelled by the Scarred solo album that frontwoman Johnette Napolitano has not grown into a consummate performer who is content, if not happy, in her skin.
Melbourne’s Graveyard Train — horror movie lyrics to a country-blues beat rounded out by banjo, double bass and a well-hammered length of chain — ably softened up the sizeable crowd who comfortably filled the tiered, industrial-themed room (bare bricks, exposed ducts, concrete and — just so you know you’re in a rock venue — a sticky timber floor).
Our posse lined the barrier directly in front of Johnette’s mic, prepared to sacrifice sound quality for a close-up of one of the few singers I would call an idol: talented, emotive, uncompromising.
We were not disappointed.
Johnette’s bass — unadorned gloss black with simple, sweeping lines — combined with the drums of Gabriel Ramirez (who stepped up to the sticks for the Group Therapy tour when drummer Harry Rushakoff fell off the radar, and has stuck around) to lay down a thumping beat, at times reaching into the chest to alter the heart beat, at others tickling the throat or making a mild tremor under the feet. The velvet curtain hanging at the front of the stage billowed in time like a lung.
And Jim Mankey, Johnette’s foil and anchor, stood unflappable and so very casual, whether filling in the background with his trademark guitar wail and chug or cutting loose on a solo for Hendrix’s Little Wing.
The stage was simply lit, emphasised with an occasional billow of fog, and was adorned only with black muslin around the drum kit and a scatter of huge red roses — this tour marks the 20th anniversary of Bloodletting, a breakout album with vampire themed tunes leading the way.
The stage belonged to Johnette Napolitano.
Wearing a Spanish-influenced black dress, her movements were laced with Flamenco in bare feet and deliberate movements of the hands and arms; at other times, she would twirl the bass as she rocked out, at others pluck the strings as if each was a thorn to be pulled. A tattoo of a cross, filled with Celtic knotwork and surrounded by simple stars, adorned her chest, and her long, black hair at times fell as a curtain across her so very expressive kohl-darkened eyes, lending a hint of Japanese horror movie, a sense of mystique.
Watching her descend into the emotional space for When I Was A Fool, led by Jim’s guitar, was an exquisite pleasure, and then to be carried aloft as the song built to its explosive crescendo …
There were many such moments — Heal It Up, Your Haunted Head and more — in a set that ran almost to two hours and offered at least 21 songs drawn from the band’s studio catalogue (with Bloodletting most highly represented, naturally), skipping only the Mojave album (and the band’s debut, the eponymous Dream 6 before they took on their current moniker).
A rock aesthetic ran through much of the set, kicking off with opener Bloodletting and putting fire into typically slow-burning tunes such as I Don’t Need a Hero. The pace eased when Jim took up the acoustic and Johnette rested the bass for a ballad set — Mexican Moon with Flamenco dance included — and was brought to a close with the poignant Tomorrow, Wendy, which saw Johnette slowly fold to hands and knees as the lament for lost life and innocence wound down, to arise on knees with a single red rose held aloft into a perfectly aimed spotlight.
Unexpected delights such as Run, Run, Run, Your Haunted Head and Days and Days raised the roof — Johnette crossed herself before laying down a massive, manic bassline to intro one — and her voice soared, with Janis Joplin-like verve at times, on tunes such as Heal It Up. The encore consisted of the Midnight Oil hit Beds Are Burning and the raucous Still in Hollywood.
It was one hell of a way to open their Australian tour, and signalled there’s plenty of life left in the trio yet.
Songs, not in order: Bloodletting, Joey, Scene of a Perfect Crime, Someday, When I Was A Fool, Run Run Run, Happy Birthday, God Is A Bullet, Ghost of a Texas Ladies Man, Haunted Head, True, Little Wing, Everybody Knows, Mexican Moon, Heal It Up, Caroline, Days and Days, Tomorrow Wendy, I Don’t Need a Hero, Lullabye, Beds are Burning, Still in Hollywood.