Star-Bulletin Features

Johnette Napolitano, left, and Jim Mankey of Concrete Blonde performed at World Cafe on Friday night.

Passion marks Concrete Blonde

The band's Friday gig is packed with energy

By Gary C.W. Chun

Well, color us lucky! Those of us who filled the World Cafe on Friday night probably saw one of the better performances Concrete Blonde has put on during this, their most recent tour.

After taking a couple of days off after just finishing a short jaunt through some of Australia, the trio -- singer, bassist and emotional barometer Johnette Napolitano; her longtime guitar foil and friend Jim Mankey; and a welcome new drummer, Gabriel Ramirez -- played a well-received show in Honolulu that spanned the band's long career, right up to its most recent album, "Group Therapy."

While there were a couple of unexpected glitches, the show was pretty dependent on Napolitano's mood. And even though she halted "Bloodletting (The Vampire Song)" in mid-verse to firmly chide some fans about taking photos well past the usual first-two-songs-only policy, and despite surprisingly messing up her bass part on the band's big hit, "Joey," she and the others picked up the pieces and carried on like the true professionals they are.

Other than that, Napolitano was, thankfully, in good spirits, her voice and stage presence getting stronger as the night wore on. Both she and partner Mankey were dressed in black-and-gold brocade Chinese silk tops and bottoms, lending a curious Asian look to their onstage presence. The younger Ramirez opted for an all-black sport shirt and pants look, sitting tall behind his drum kit.

After kicking off the concert with "Group Therapy's" "Roxy" (Napolitano's heartfelt tribute to the seminal English art-glam band that also provided Concrete Blonde with its most familiar drummer in Paul Thompson) and a crackling version of "God is a Bullet" that she dedicated "to our d--khead president," there was a definite ebb-and-flow to the concert, going from rock-hard to quiet and back, as mercurial as her singing voice.

Napolitano's short, streaked mane sometimes covered her entire face, giving her an unsettling, witchy presence, dancing barefoot about the stage as she played her bass. Then she would dramatically throw her hair back with a toss of her head when she was at the mike, singing in that remarkable voice of hers that ran from quiet pleas to full-tilt caterwauling. She's a drama queen, all right, but not without care and compassion for the band's fans.

Mankey, in the meantime, showed his command of the guitar, using his pedals and effects not so much as a hotshot solo player would, but paying attention to texture and the particular mood of a song. His echo-laden, bluesy work was particularly effective on a slowed-down rendition of "Everybody Knows."

While the old stuff of Concrete Blonde's got the expected roars of approval, songs from the new album also sounded great. "Valentine" and "Tonight," when played back-to-back, made for an effective statement of both heart-hardened and romantic love. The autobiographical "When I was a Fool" was a highlight of the show, with Napolitano singing straight from the heart, with an edge of controlled fury.

One diversion from the band's setlist happened halfway through, when Napolitano and Mankey switched instruments. They first played one of the gentler songs from "Group Therapy," "Take Me Home," then followed up with an equally quiet and heartfelt rendition of the Bee Gees' chestnut "Words," which most of the audience unfortunately chose to ignore.

While drummer Ramirez was the steady timekeeper much of the night, he was able to cut loose toward concert's end, pushing "Days and Days," "When I was a Fool," "Violent" and "Your Haunted Head" (an older song that Napolitano aptly dedicated to the mentally ill, alleged killer Cline Kahue) to the concert's rousing conclusion.

Two of the three encore numbers sent the fans home happy. "Tomorrow, Wendy" got an impassioned vocal from both Napolitano and the audience, and the evening ended with a furious rendition of Concrete Blonde's first hit, "Still in Hollywood."

The trio showed they still have some life to them, and their next recorded project should put them at the top of their game.

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