Thursday, November 08, 2012

On Election Night, Susanna Hoffs Earns My Vote, Imperfectly -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Susanna Hoffs
City Winery, Chicago
November 6, 2012

Susanna Hoffs is someone I don’t mind forgiving.

Nearly 30 years after I first became smitten by her songs (with the Bangles), appearance and voice, she is still quite appealing on all fronts. And given her on-stage demeanor, she seems genuinely gracious, amiable and endearing.

So although I was rather disappointed back in April when she failed to appear, as advertised, at a Siskel Film Center screening of the 1978 movie, Stony Island, in which she made her screen debut (you can read my bitching about this here), I nonetheless ponied up good money to attend a solo performance by her Tuesday night at Chicago’s City Winery.

And though she showed up missing half her band and delivered a performance that went beyond loose and scruffy to be somewhat embarrassingly slipshod, her good natured persona—along with a nice mix of enjoyable songs—made her show likable nonetheless.

But though Susanna still looks and sounds great at 53, making the gig worth my while if not fully the admission price, I can’t truthfully call it one for the ages.

Hoffs did showcase what has been a rather robust career, playing Bangles gems such as “Manic Monday,” “Hero Takes A Fall” and “If She Knew What She Wants,” some nice cuts from her recent solo release, Someday (“November Sun,” “One Day” and “Picture Me” being highlights”) and several cover tunes, reminiscent of her fun Under the Covers collaborations with Matthew Sweet.  The latter included the Beatles’ “All I’ve Got to Do,” the Stone Poneys (i.e. Linda Ronstadt’s) “Different Drum,” Little Feat’s “Willin’,” The Association’s “Never My Love” and a show closing encore of “September Gurls” by the Box Tops. (Full setlist on

All of these were nice to hear and except for a few phrasing concessions on some high notes, Susanna's sticky sweet vocals sounded as good as ever.

Explaining as she took the City Winery stage—an attractive, comfortable venue if a bit snooty—that her bassist and drummer weren’t able to make it to the show (perhaps pertaining to Hurricane Sandy, but not specified), Hoffs was accompanied by guitarist Andrew Brassell and another guy who mostly played the tambourine.

Initially playing an acoustic guitar—for which she apologized at being less than adept—rather than her favored trademark Rickenbacker, Susanna was instantly beset by technical challenges, including a strange buzz emanating from her guitar cord.

Affably apologetic and effusively appreciative of the somewhat sparse Election Night crowd, Hoffs initially offset the snafus with her charm. But with a number of songs being started, stopped & re-started and “Walk Like an Egyptian” and “In Your Room” being completely butchered, what might have remained engagingly homey in a coffeehouse ventured toward being unprofessional given my nearly $50 ticket price.

When Hoffs and Brassell got through an entire song, it generally sounded delightful. Just hearing her unique voice on a nice batch of classic songs was undeniably pleasing, and the 100-minute show had enough stellar moments to be more enjoyable than not.

I realize Susanna is in the early stages of a rare solo tour, without her Bangle bandmates nor in tandem with Sweet, and is still finding her “sea legs.” And the unexplained absence of half her band certainly couldn’t have aided her comfort level. Especially given her sweet disposition, I won’t overly harangue her lack of polish, but I think she’d be the first to admit her stagecraft could use some improvement.

But at least she showed up. And if all is not quite forgotten, I’ll consider it forgiven.

To reference the Bangles #1 ballad she performed Tuesday night, when it comes to the female rock singer I’ve most aesthetically admired (with apologies to Debbie Harry, Gwen Stefani and other contenders), I guess my “Eternal Flame” continues to burn. Even if it occasionally flickers a bit.

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