Live Report: B-52's/Pretenders

Great Woods Performing Arts Center, Mansfield, Mass., June 20, 1998

"After all is said and done, you can't beat a guitar band, can ya?" queried Chrissie Hynde after her retooled Pretenders had romped through nearly a dozen career-spanning classics dating back almost (gulp) twenty years. Of course, holding up her guitar like the totem of rock stardom it was, Hynde's question wasn't a question at all -- not to her, and certainly not to an audience that had flocked to hear the Pretenders and co-headliners the B-52's strut their stuff through a greatest hits-heavy show that was long on nostalgia but short on new material.

What Saturday's show -- the third of both bands' scheduled twenty-two-date summer tour -- made abundantly clear was this: song-for-song, the Pretenders have as enduring a catalog as any artist from the post-punk New Wave era (there were a dozen or so other sure-fire hits the band *didn't* perform), and that's what everyone came to hear. Meanwhile, the B-52's' campy beach-blanket, slumber party-with-laughing gas schtick has aged far better than anyone could ever have reasonably predicted back when the group first go-go danced out of Georgia during the Carter Administration.

The Pretenders came on first, and during their seventy-five-minute set, Hynde appeared loose and warm -- gregarious even -- mugging for the audience, trying on baseball caps ("normally I wouldn't be caught dead in one of these things, but I don't want to appear ungracious"), and crouching at the lip of the stage signing autographs *while* she sang the sappy, though entirely fitting, "I'll Stand By You." At one point, she briefly halted "Talk of the Town" to accept a bouquet of roses from a fan. Most importantly, though, Hynde's pearl-handled switchblade of a voice was as indelible and cutting as it's ever been, a vibrato shimmering with defiance and heartbreak. And as long as Hynde has her voice, she'll have the Pretenders, or some version of it.

Indeed, her new edition of the band (drummer Martin Chambers is the sole original member; both founding guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and bassist Pete Farndon died, separately, of drug overdoses in the early Eighties) seemed at home and completely comfortable with radio warhorses like "Back On The Chain Gang" and "Kid" (which Hynde dedicated to Honeyman-Scott and Farndon) -- maybe even a little too comfortable. The tunes were replicated in such note-for-note, picture-perfect detail that, until they tore into the blistering "My City Was Gone," the band seemed to be coasting a bit, missing the snarl and swagger that once defined it.

But ultimately, the cool character assassinations rendered in "Private Life" and "Precious," and the rousing encore reading of "Brass In Pocket," with Hynde's famously insistent lyric "I'm special, so special," were all more than enough to convince you that, some twenty years on, she still was.

So, in their own adorably bizarro-world way, were the B-52's. With once-departed singer Cindy Wilson back in the fold and a new greatest hits album, Time Capsule: Songs For A Future Generation, on the shelves, the band is undertaking its first tour in five years. So when it came to throwing a party Saturday, in that special Brady Bunch-on-acid-variety-show-kinda-way, the B-52's had a lot of catching up to do.

Against a backdrop of glittering disco balls, space-age globes and psychedelic strobes, the group -- expertly augmented by a three-piece backing band -- got things started in inimitable fashion with the rumbling, Link Wray-ish, B-movie noir of "Planet Claire." Decked out in plastic flare-bottom slacks and what looked suspiciously like a polyester shirt (plum), emcee and, uh, singer Fred Schneider bumped-and-grinded the crowd through faves like "Private Idaho," the absurdly perfect "Rock Lobster," and a couple of new tunes perfect for hearing while commandeering a Chrysler as big as a whale: "Debbie," the Stonesy, riff-happy tribute to Blondie's Debbie Harry, and the nearly-as-good "Hallucinating Pluto."

Though the set sagged slightly toward the middle (the repetitive charm of the band's strongest material becomes merely repetitive on weaker tunes like "Summer of Love" ), Wilson's and singer Kate Pierson's crystalline harmonies sounded uniformly terrific (bonus points for Kate's beehive 'do and Cindy's green feather boa). Meanwhile, guitarist Keith Strickland's wiry, loopy guitar instigated a steady stream of zaniness and made-up dance moves. On "Love Shack," when Schneider blurted his command that "the whole shack shimmy!" you needed only to look down at your feet to realize that it already was.