Chrissie Hynde took the stage of San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium on Dec. 2 to a recording of Sam Cooke singing “The Great Pretender.” Glittering in a silver mesh riding jacket, with knee-high boots of an animal-friendly material sprayed over skin-tight jeans, she stood with the white spotlight lending a silver sheen to her hair and bouncing off her dangling metallic earrings. She looked like a goddess poised to throw bolts of lightning.
At 63, Hynde is as commanding a presence as she was on the Pretenders’ first U.S. tour in 1980, all sharp angles and feline grace. She still sashays rather than charges around a stage, she still spits out the lyrics to “Precious” and “Tattooed Love Boys” with a fine-honed contempt that could cut through glass. Throughout her career, she has made tough music about love, sex, rape, abuse, addiction, infidelity, birth, motherhood and mortality. But it’s shot through with a deep vein of tenderness, carried in the dusky beauty of her voice. The shivery vibrato, the way she plays with drama and intimacy, with words sometimes spit like nails, sometimes teased like taffy — nobody sounds like Chrissie Hynde.
At the Masonic, Hynde’s vibrato remained as supple as ever, as she led a new band — called Will Travel, though it featured the guitarist and bassist from the 2008 version of the Pretenders — through a 100-minute set. The song list was heavy on tracks from her first solo album, Stockholm (2014), as well as a liberal dose of Pretenders’ songs with the emphasis on their first album. But this didn’t feel like an oldies show; it felt like an artist embracing her past while announcing her intention to not fade away. The Stockholm tracks sounded as bright and current as they do on the CD. Produced by Swedish indie pop musician Bjorn Yttling, Stockholm is a gorgeous showcase for Hynde’s voice, and her Scandinavian collaborators force her out of her comfort zone where melodies and song structure are concerned. She sounds vivacious and dance-floor ready, but still wholly Chrissie, on “Sweet Nuthin,'” “You or No One” and the single “Dark Sunglasses,” all of which she performed at the Masonic.
Speaking of being wholly Chrissie, Hynde is still walking the walk when it comes to her animal rights stance. A PETA table was set up in the Masonic lobby, and notices on the concession areas informed patrons that no meat was being served by request of the artist. There were also numerous signs asking audience members not to use cell phone cameras during the show and to be “in the moment” and not “behind the screen.” Amen to that. She interrupted a song to scold a camera- wielding audience member who was in defiance of the signs and, oh, how I adore her “don’t fuck with me” face, which always was and ever will be a majestic thing to behold.
But her edgiest move of the night was the surprising (or not) inclusion of the obscure, enigmatic ballad “977,” from Last of the Independents (1994). Hynde sings “977” with great empathy (both on the record and live) from the perspective of a woman abused by (or maybe engaged in a BDSM relationship with) a male partner. The lyrics equate the violence with intimacy and love (“he hit me with his belt/but his tears were all I felt”). It wasn’t exactly a safe choice, especially as the third song of the night; perhaps it was meant as her take on the current high-profile domestic violence and sexual assault cases in the news. Then again, during “977” I flashed back to that 1980 Pretenders show, and how Chrissie introduced “Tattooed Love Boys” with a remark to the effect of, “This is for all the women who’ve ever been beaten up twice by the same guy.” Maybe the empathetic, un-ironic way she sings “977” comes from a deep place indeed.
By the end of the handful of slow-burning rare and new numbers that opened the show, Hynde had shed her sparkly jacket, picked up her sparkly guitar, and teased the attentive audience (“Scared you, didn’t I? It gets better.”), before launching into “Talk of the Town,” prompting the first stage-rush of the evening.
I can’t remember ever seeing Hynde so chatty and playful. At one point, with the audience on its feet for one of many outpourings of love, Hynde said, “Now, you’re just embarrassing me,” but when, a beat later, a guy yelled out, “You’re beautiful!,” she responded, “All right, keep going.” She and guitarist James Walbourne (who also played a lovely opening set with wife Kami Thompson as the folk duo The Rails) pulled a fast one before “Down the Wrong Way” from Stockholm, when they led us to believe that Bay Area resident Neil Young, who plays signature fuzzed-out guitar on the track, was about to make a surprise appearance. Hynde and Walbourne looked into the wings and called, “Neil?,” before ‘fessing up that Mr. Young was, in fact, not in the house. (In his stead, Walbourne looked like he was having a great time going all psycho on the whammy bar.)
Chrissie even mellowed on those camera phone admonishments near the end of the show, thanking the audience for (mostly) cooperating and then calling out with a smile, “Take one now!” After two encores, Hynde still seemed reluctant to call it a night, returning for a tour premiere of the Pretenders’ beautiful, yearning Christmas song, “2000 Miles.” (A Bjorn Yttling-produced re-recording of the song is set for release next week.)
It was an excellent show, a revitalizing one. But I also found it unexpectedly moving, and I suspect that I’m not the only woman of a certain age who felt that way. Thirty-four years ago, we watched Hynde stand on stage, bangs in her kohl-rimmed eyes, saying “Thank you, girls!” after every song (as opposed to calling the audience “guys”); we watched how her male bandmates deferred to her authority. In that moment, it felt like rock and roll belonged to us girls, truly belonged to us, in a way that it hadn’t before. I felt that way again, seeing Chrissie all these years later, so clearly comfortable in her own middle-aged skin. Still rocking that eyeliner, her lean arms bare beneath a man’s suit-vest, she prowled the lip of the stage in that panther’s glide of hers and crouched over her guitar, throwing lightning with her bare hands.
©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2014