The contrast between Angie Hart - who's warming up the room for Johnette tonight – and the main act is pretty striking. The former Frente singer seems so vulnerable on stage and is even apologetic for us having to 'sit through' her set in anticipation of the headliner. Angie remains completely motionless as she runs through a short set of brand new songs and Frente classics and from where I'm standing, no apologies were needed. Perhaps Angie was nervous about opening for an act who hasn't played for her Australian fans in over a decade. Really, the anticipation for Johnette Napolitano tonight is so intense that Elvis could walk on stage and get booed off if it meant having to wait longer. The big question on everyone's lips is after nearly 30 years of making music, what will she play?
After Concrete Blonde disbanded in 2004, Johnette moved out of LA into the California desert where she began writing for the self-funded self-produced Sketchbook album series. Highlights from these CDs are scattered in amongst Concrete Blonde's most loved songs tonight - and some pretty surprising covers - making for a 'fan's greatest hits' live experience. Johnette is already on stage and playing before the the curtain finally parts, revealing a pale and expressive face peering out from a mop of untamed black hair. The welcoming cheers are brief so as to not miss any of opening number, The Real Thing - a new song which is sadly very hard to find, but has all the potential to be massive - Johnette is in warm up mode, testing her voice which cracks a little here and there. The song loses nothing in this process and by the end of tonight's show, it becomes very clear why Johnette is still gradually smoothing out the creases in her astounding voice long after soundcheck. Gradually using more range, Johnette launches into Amazing - this tense, mid-tempo song are perfect bait to hook us all in and very soon the room is hushed and still.
Joey kicks off with restrained amusement. Being Concrete Blonde's only big hit in Australia, I sense there is a feeling of obligation to play it rather than want. The much faster and shorter re-working is quite nice for it's familiarity but soon becomes hilarious as Johnette, feeling her concentration going, widely pops open her eyes and stares madly at someone filming her, then in tune with the song's chorus informs him "I'm going to shove that camera up your ass". The laughter and applause brings the song to a quick finish, and Johnette makes a hurried apology to the camera wielding dude, reinforcing what we already knew - that she simply saw the chance for a spontaneous rhyming gag. Making sure that the concert never flat lines is Johnette's driving purpose here. She's making it fun for herself and for us. Still, I would be willing to bet anybody in her line of sight got the goose bumps in that moment her eyes fixed on the unwelcome camera.
As a performer, Johnette has equal measures of sombre and completely feral - at times she's like watching Patti Smith or Janis Joplin whooping it up. She can be sweet and girlish one minute and scary as hell the next. The Italian-American looks as though she's not simply singing, but exorcising the music from herself. It's an almost frightening display of primal channeling as Johnette seems to be at the mercy of her songs as they leap from her throat. She looks disoriented and detached, sometimes even violent as though she's in a struggle for ownership of her soul. Her lips curl back and her teeth chatter like she's freezing before every line sung, giving the appearance mini seizures taking place. It's as if Napolitano's jaw is being operated against her will. Adding to the wild, unpredictability her and Ramirez frequently start the songs out of time with each other. It's barely a distraction though, as the raw energy being produced kills any need for standard structure.
In their live set, Concrete Blonde always chose interesting covers, tonight Coldplay's The Scientist is the first of four, and not even close to being the most bizarre. The song's gentle plodding pace is scrapped as Johnette, preferring to make it her own, pays little honours to the original and gives a gritty, unpolished performance. The raw edge given to Coldplay is all smoothed out for the next cover - Johnny Cash's Ghost Riders In The Sky. Johnette shares with us that this was the last song she played for her father who died two months ago, before singing her heart out. It's impossible not to be moved.
Encores are always nice little sweeteners to send everyone home with, but Johnette tears up and re-writes the book on them. Not only do we get two encores, but the first one involves filling out the stage with a surprise guitarist named James - from Johnette's extended touring party - and a guest second vocalist named Fiona. Best of all, Johnette's plugging in that bass and after a few plucks on the strings, she yells; "Okay, it's pretty close to halloween and because I know you love it Melbourne....!" It's Bloodletting. Oh Yes! The place is going absolutely bananas. Johnette is pulling out the thickest, blackest bass chords ever and completely drowning out the band while getting everyone to sing along in the chorus. How do they top that, I wonder. The answer it turns out is play a Midnight Oil song. Beds Are Burning to be exact, and Johnette's even doing the Peter Garrett Darlek voice. It's an amazing version, and we forgive Johnette for not remembering all the words in fact that just adds to the comedy of the whole thing. As the band exit the stage they treated to a response that can only be described as outright hysteria. After a few uncertain minutes, Johnette reappears to deafening screams and under a single spotlight, recites in perfect pitch Tomorrow Wendy - acapella with accompaniment from the whole audience. Goosebumps time again, and then her final exit but still nobody wants to leave. Instead Johnette Napolitano earns the longest post-encore applause I have ever seen.
photos by me & indolentdandy