Concrete Blonde’s current tour is billed as the 20-year anniversary of their signature release Bloodletting, but the show at Washington DC’s 9:30 Club on June 15 expanded the aperture beyond that one album and turned the evening into a celebration of the band’s entire catalog. And the capacity crowd – comprised predominately of aging alternative rockers – enthusiastically accepted it as such.
With the first bass note of “Bloodletting (the Vampire Song)”, frontwoman Johnette Napolitano, resplendent in a black long-sleeved minidress and stiletto heels, immediately reminded the audience of Concrete Blonde’s place in alternative rock history.
But mentions of history shouldn’t suggest the music doesn’t hold up. More to the point, Napolitano’s gritty Hollywood esthetic still comes courtesy of her incredible voice. And when she wasn’t at the mike she dominated the stage with a street-savvy strut and heavy metal-esque shakes of her long black mane.
Napolitano was ably assisted by original bandmate Jim Mankey on guitar and third-iteration replacement drummer Gabriel Ramirez (who she introduced as “everyone’s little brother” for reasons unexplained). Mankey’s middle-aged status was reflected in his shorter locks (he’d actually look at home walking Sunset during daylight now), but his signature Stratocaster riffs remained the fabric woven around Napolitano’s lyrics.
The show wasn’t without missteps. Napolitano muffed the second verse of “Scene of a Perfect Crime” from their Free album. The meter of “Caroline” from “Bloodletting” was way too slow, which threatened to suck the life out of an otherwise beautiful song.
Set highlights included “Joey” (the closest thing the band ever had to a hit),“Run, Run, Run,” (which Napolitano explained was inspired by the last time she did speed “in ’82 or maybe it was ‘84”), a note-perfect cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” and the ever-powerful “God is a Bullet.”
The first encore was a four-song acoustic set that featured “True” from their first album and a haunting version of the already haunting “Tomorrow, Wendy,” which sounded even more powerful when stripped of its layers of studio production.
The audience wasn’t ready to depart the 9:30 Club after the band left the stage for the second time, and the band obliged their doggedness by coming on for another encore, playing fan favorite, “Still in Hollywood” from their eponymous debut.
As with the bigger tours with bands like Styx and Journey, Concrete Blonde’s current “20 Years of Bloodletting” is somewhat of a rigged game in that fans are trading on lifetime connections with the music as much as the performance of that music. Thankfully, Concrete Blonde didn’t take that dynamic for granted and delivered an inspired and well-executed show.