BOSTON -- The main question, when Hole played their first U.S. gig in four years Tuesday, wasn't about the music. It had more to do with Hole's roster, particularly their inimitable leader.
The question was: Which version of Courtney Love would show up?
In a sense, they all did: trash-talking songstress, grieving widow, confrontational punk-rocker, non-confrontational peacenik. For good measure, she also threw in rock 'n' roll history professor.
But mostly, Love, who has followed a haphazard trajectory from disheveled punk-rocker to famous rock wife to acclaimed actress to model and back, seemed to want to let the crowd at Boston's Orpheum Theater know this: Courtney Love is still Courtney Love, and Courtney is as Courtney does.
And lest anyone think that simply means wearing designer clothes and going to Hollywood parties, she led the band into Pretty on the Inside's (1991) abrasive title track (RealAudio excerpt), saying, "Picture me in a Versace gown singing this."
The show was the first date of a two-week U.S. mini-tour. The band mixed plenty of material from the new Celebrity Skin with songs from its previous two albums and covers of folk-rock legend Bob Dylan ("It's All Over Now, Baby Blue") and guitar-poppers the Lemonheads ("Into Your Arms").
The sound was muddy and bass-heavy, and there were musical rough spots, but if anyone can turn forgotten chords and lyrics to her advantage, it's Love.
At one point she demanded, "Take the guitar away. I can't play this song." Eric Erlandson, acting his usual low-key self, was doing the brunt of the guitar work anyway.
Love wore hip-hugging leather pants, a cropped tank-top with a distractingly low neckline and a pair of beautiful black leather boots. In her inimitable way, she managed to make this fairly sophisticated outfit look like trailer-park wear.
She had a huge, glittering cocktail ring on each hand, a sparkling black cuff-bracelet on her left wrist, glitter in her wavy-'n'-wild, shoulder-length blond hair, and she sported her signature baby-blue Fender Stratocaster.
Love didn't disappoint those who came to the 3,000-seat theater to gawk at, admire or disparage the trash-talking, train-wreck version of her. She was caustic and confrontational from the outset. Following a tight rendition of Hole's juicy "Awful" and a ripping "Miss World," she berated three radio-station suits in the front row who wouldn't stand up.
"It's f---ing boring to look at you guys!" Love yelled. Cigarette in hand, she then lit into her sound crew, demanding, "Fix this! And don't let it happen again!"
She ranted at the rest of the crowd for failing "Rock History 101." "Did you people even know that was a Dylan cover?" she asked after Hole played "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue."
Referring to two influential, underground rock bands from Boston, she also found time to say, "I can't f---ing believe you don't know who the Lyres are!" and, "Who here knows the Pixies? You've got to know your rock history!"
But fans willing to look beyond Love's trailer-trash exterior could see an inner light shining in this year's model. Love laughed and smiled many times, prompting one fan to say, "It's so good to see her looking happy!"
Love prefaced "Boys on the Radio," from Celebrity Skin, by saying, "OK, this is a goddamn pop song coming up, but it's a f---ing good one!" Later, grinning after the tambourine-laden "Heaven Tonight," she proclaimed, "It's so hard to sing a happy song! It's cool, though! It's kind-of fun!"
She didn't shy away from her sad songs, though. "Dying" evoked the specter of late husband, Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain, with its themes of loss and loneliness and the line, "I want to be under your skin." Love sang it draped over the mic stand and surrounded by cigarette smoke.
Another poignant moment was Love's emotional delivery of the new single, "Malibu" (RealAudio excerpt), in which she sang, "Oh come on, be alive again, don't lay down and die. ... Get well soon, please don't go any higher." By song's end, there were tears in her eyes.
It was a night of mixed signals. At one point, Love recalled slugging her old nemesis, folk-rocker Mary Lou Lord -- a Boston busker who had a brief fling with Cobain -- and the crowd cheered. Love chided: "No, no, it's not so good that I clocked her. It's not good to want confrontation."
But earlier, addressing a heckler, she said, "What was that? Did I hear some confrontation? I would LOVE some confrontation."
For Hole's encore, Love returned in a dusty-pink number that looked like a figure-skating outfit, complete with feather bustle and sparkly, nude tights -- definitely not a Versace ensemble.
"Does this look stupid?" she asked.
Hole closed with the transcendent new tune "Northern Star," followed by an extended version of "Violet," off their previous album, Live Through This.
By the end, Erlandson was on the floor in a fetal position, banging on his guitar. Love continued to thrash randomly at her Strat long after drummer Samantha Maloney tossed her sticks into the crowd and bassist Melissa auf der Maur walked offstage.
Finally, in a storm of dissonance and feedback, Erlandson tossed his guitar over his shoulder and exited stage right with Love sashaying behind him, trailing a faded-pink feather boa.
She was something like a luxury sports car speeding expertly down a twisting mountain road -- filled with risk, a trifle dangerous, a little scary, and yet totally in control.