There was something momentarily unsettling about Johnette Napolitano's final glance into the crowd at the Concrete Blonde and Los Illegals show Monday night (May 5) at L.A.'s House of Blues. It was, in part, the glance of gratefulness that she always gives her fans at the end of her performances, yet there seemed to be a disturbing nostalgia attached to it. Jutting her chin so she could see the crowd under her big, teased bangs, she revealed a hungry, teary-eyed look.
Still in Hollywood, that girl. And yes, she did sing it--the song that not only defined Concrete Blonde the band but also L.A. the city from a mid-1980s punk-rock point of view. On Monday the verses were still the same, but the chorus was not--instead of "Still in Hollywood," it was "Still in the Barrio." And Napolitano wasn't the only one carrying the chorus--the members of Los Illegals, as well as her significant other in Concrete Blonde, guitarist Jim Mankey, were shouting along with her.
It was during this song that the night proved its sense and viability in the most tangible terms. Here, nostalgia was kept at bay, because it was given a current, if translated, twist. At first, it seemed a little negligent that the reunion of one of L.A.'s most memorable bands (CB called it quits after a 10-year hiatus in 1993) was stuffed into a package celebration of Cinco de Mayo and the release of the collaborative "rock en Espanol" album called Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals. But, as the night progressed, it became increasingly clear that the constant participation of the Los Illegals members--even during the few CB songs--not only saved the show from the depths of sentimentality but also gave it meaning and resonance beyond that night.
The unity on stage and the possibility of greater unity through music loomed prominently in your face--this was no yesterday fest; this was a tight crossing of fingers for a less messy tomorrow. Set in this context, the CB tunes were beyond being just the enduring rock & roll they are. They fit comfortably among songs from the new album, which features mostly Spanish-sung vocals by Napolitano and Los Illegals' commanding leader Willie Herron, as well as a few well-chosen covers, which included Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" and Hendrix's "Little Wings." Without exception, the show was seamless and sizzling--including the opening performance by L.A.'s most popular Latin punk band, Maria Fatal, whose latest album was produced by Napolitano and Los Illegals.
Undeniably, Napolitano, whose post-CB work as a musician has included Vowel Movement and Pretty & Twisted, as well as a brief stint last fall as the leader of the touring Heads, was the main attraction for the crowd, which was mostly English-speaking and full of diehards who screamed her name each time she opened her mouth, played a chord, shook her ass, or did, well, anything. With her unique, throaty voice as the best instrument on stage, she gave a gripping performance as she poured on the passion in her own signature, genuine way.
During the final song, a Latin-influenced rendition Concrete Blonde's
biggest radio hit "Joey," Napolitano was obviously affected by the crowd's roar
of the lyrics. Her voice cracked as she struggled to get through it, but she
came back in the final verse with startling emotion in her voice. After it was
over she was again humble with Thank Yous and Graciases. And then came that
pained, nostalgic look. But Napolitano kept on walking.