Stevie Nicks, The Pretenders
October 29, 2016
Before Stevie Nicks on Saturday, it had been quite a while since I’d covered a concert for the Houston Press, and the first time ever doing so at the Toyota Center. When I arrived I was greeted by religious protesters using a megaphone to describe orgies and homosexuals. I thought this might have something to do with Nicks’ lingering reputation as a practitioner of black magic, but the Houston Chronicle’s Joey Guerra, who I sat next to for the show, assured me they come out to most weekend concerts regardless of the act. So if you’re churchy, loud and have a tenuous grip on reality, there’s your Saturday night, y’all.
The Pretenders opened for Ms. Nicks, and though I wasn’t really there for them it was a fairly impressive show. Chrissie Hynde, Martin Chambers and the rest of the gang played all the hits like “Brass In Pocket,” “Middle of the Road,” and "Tattooed Love Boys.” The only song I hadn’t heard before was the new single, “Holy Commotion,” which fits right in with the rest of the group's discography as if it were written back in the Learning to Crawl days.
It wasn’t until I saw the band live that I realized just how much rockabilly there is in the Pretenders' sound, and I’ll praise Hynde for the fact that she sincerely wants to be up there rocking. Lots of aging acts are just going through the motions for a paycheck, but Hynde lays it all out there with sincere gusto. She still talks too much between songs, and at one point invited any armed members of the audience to shoot her because saying the right thing in any given situation has never been her strong point, but it was a solid rock-night-out.
Regardless, it was definitely a Stevie crowd. Nicks is one of those rare stars with such a defined look that she inspires style-cosplay that is instantly recognizable, and Saturday was rocked by everyone from elementary-school girls to elderly women. That right there is an impressive fandom, and they all jumped to their feet when Nicks finally sauntered out onto the stage.
At first, Nicks seemed slightly stiff and off as she opened with “All These Years,” a very, very deep cut and what I thought was an odd song for such a hitmaker to warm up an audience with. After it was over, the reason became clear. Nicks is using the 2014 release of 24 Karat Gold: Songs From the Vault to trot out some rather obscure material. Some of the songs on this tour have only ever been played once on the road, or not at all.
That’s not to say she didn’t also bring the hits. Hynde joined her to belt out Tom Petty’s parts from “Stop Draggin’ my Heart Around,” and it wouldn’t be a Nicks show without “Edge of Seventeen” and “Rhiannon” (though “Gypsy” was oddly absent). A casual fan wouldn’t be disappointed by missing the usual draws, but it was a really neat opportunity to see some rarer songs done live.
Some highlights include a neat version of “Outside the Rain” from Bella Donna that transitioned beautifully into “Dreams” and which made excellent use of Nicks’ minimalist animated backing screen. Speaking of Bella Donna and mash-ups, Nicks merged the title track and the never-performed-live “Wild Heart” into a total showstopper. I can’t imagine why “Wild Heart” hasn’t been a concert staple because it is a total beast.
My own personal favorites from the more obscure Nicks catalogue were “Moonlight” and “Annabel Lee,” both from In Your Dreams. The former was a masterpiece of stagecraft, with Nicks a lonely soul under a moonlit ocean belting out one of the more haunting songs in her career. The nickname "The White Witch" had never felt more appropriate, and was a rare moment in the show where the years between the Stevie I had grown up watching perform on television and the one I was seeing now disappeared. The effect gave me goosebumps.
She then ruined it slightly by telling the audience the song was about The Twilight Saga.
“Annabel Lee” is Nicks’ adaptation of the famous poem by Edgar Allan Poe. The studio version is good, don’t get me wrong, but the live version is just a whole level above. The intensity Nicks and guitarist Waddy Wachtel add in front of an audience is something to behold. As Nicks enters the final parts of the song, screaming, “my darling, my life, my life and my bride,” it feels like this was always how those words were supposed to sound.
Not everything was a hit. Being that so much of the material was deep cuts, Nicks took a lot of breaks to explain the songs. That’s understandable, but I wouldn’t call Stevie a particularly gifted storyteller in the spoken-word form. She’s warm and engaging, but not compelling. And she made a pretty bad gaffe describing the writing of her song “New Orleans.”
Nicks says she was sitting in her house by the beach in California as she watched Hurricane Katrina about to make landfall. Overcome with the idea of something that devastating coming upon her from the sea, she penned a long poem she later set to music. She told the Houston audience that she felt the song was originally a harbinger of bad things, but that it now felt like a celebration since “everybody lived.” She quickly corrected that nope, not everybody lived (fun fact: the death toll of Hurricane Katrina is about 10 percent of the Toyota Center’s seating capacity) before launching into the song.
“New Orleans,” the song, is a pretty but terribly clichéd and somewhat shallow sort of tune rather typical of people who write about a major event they are experience deep emotions about, but only as a distant and safe spectator. Too many references to Mardis Gras and the French Quarter, and not really enough about the parts of New Orleans that don’t appear in movies and remain in bad shape.
Honestly, I’m kind of surprised it played so well in a city where in poorer places you still see blue tarps on roofs from Hurricane Ike and where so many Katrina survivors never went or were never able to go home. Then again, a lot of those people probably can’t afford Stevie Nicks tickets.
But let’s talk about death now…
Death was a minor cast member in the current tour, making its presence felt in two of the night’s biggest numbers, “Stand Back” and “Edge of Seventeen.” The first cast Wachtel in the unfortunate position of recreating a Prince guitar line not long after the unfortunate passing of His Royal Badness. I wouldn’t call Wachtel Prince’s equal on the instrument, but there aren’t many dudes who can channel Prince’s chops as well as Wachtel did. All this was on my mind as the number came to a shocking close, and the stage was dominated by a huge picture of Nicks and Prince onstage together. It sprang out of the dark like a gut punch.
That was nothing compared to “Edge of Seventeen,” though, where ghostly images of Prince appeared following the line about a nightbird. He continued to move in and out of the disorientating white doves that flashed about the screen, paying tribute to one of our greatest lost artists but also tearing the heart out of the audience. I doubt I was the only one crying, realizing that this was a brutal reminder that I had never caught Prince onstage, and this was probably the closest I was ever going to get.
Leaving the venue, my wife and I discussed the show. She remarked that she was simply glad that she had finally gotten to see an artist who was so instrumental to her musical development, but the Prince imagery reminded her that the amount of time she had to see any such artist was likely fading away. I can’t help but wonder if that was part of the reason that Nicks chose her unusual set for this tour. At 68, she is still a force of nature that can command a crowd like, well, witchcraft, but how many opportunities are there left for her to sing “Belle Fleur” for an audience?
Moral of the story? Try to make time to go see musicians who move you when they perform live. You never know when they’ll be taken by the wind.
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All These Years
If Anyone Falls
Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around
Outside the Rain / Dreams
Wild Heart / Bella Donna
Crying in the Night
If You Were My Love
Gold Dust Woman
Edge of Seventeen
Leather and Lace