Sunday, July 23, 2017

At Ravinia, a Swell Celebration of Women Who Rock -- Chicago Concert Review: Blondie, Garbage and Exene Cervenka/John Doe

Concert Review

John Doe & Exene Cervenka (of X)
Ravinia Festival, Highland Park, IL
July 22, 2017
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I certainly mean no slight nor disrespect to the many talented men who comprise the entirety of Blondie, Garbage and X save for those bands' iconic lead singers.

Clearly, Chris Stein, Butch Vig, John Doe and their male bandmates are excellent musicians, songwriters and/or producers who have helped fuel decades-long runs of success...and factored prominently into a terrific triple-bill Saturday night at Ravinia.

But while recognizing that it wouldn't have been much of a concert without men with instruments making music, it was a night to relish three of the best frontwomen in rock history--Debbie Harry, Shirley Manson and Exene Cervenka--who did nothing to diminish their legends.

First up at 6:30--shame on StubHub for listing the show as 7:00pm; fortunately my friend Dave and I arrived just in time to hear all the music--was Cervenka paired with John Doe, two members of the pioneering Los Angeles punk band X.

As noted from the stage, X is celebrating its 40th anniversary, with the other two original members--guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake--part of the current band but not participating in the opening slot on the Blondie/Garbage Rage and Rapture Tour.

X will presumably perform in all their punk glory as a quartet at Riot Fest in September, but here only John & Exene were billed and the duo played acoustically across a nice 30-minute set.

Joking that the performance represented the intersection of bluegrass and punk rock, Doe and Cervenka delivered stripped down versions of X songs such as "Burning House of Love," "In This House That I Call Home," "White Girl" and "The New World," along with covers of "If I Were a Carpenter" (made most famous by Johnny and June Carter Cash) and Flatt & Scruggs' "Give Me Flowers While I'm Living."

Since the somewhat unusual founding of Garbage in 1994, when Vig--famed as the producer of Nirvana's Nevermind--and two pals (Duke Erickson and Steve Marker) decided to form a band and discovered, then enlisted, Scottish singer Shirley Manson, the Madison, WI based act has been one of my favorites.

This was my 8th time seeing the band and while their (in Manson's words) "dark" music feels a bit more at home at the Metro, Riv and Vic than the posh suburban environs of Ravinia, especially before sundown, it seemed the energetic singer enjoyed having a larger stage on which to prowl.

Starting with the brand new "No Horses," the 75-minute performance by Garbage was anything but.

Four songs ("Queer," "Stupid Girl," "Only Happy When It Rains" and "Vow") came from the band's self-titled debut album--which I still consider their best--with 3 more great ones from the follow-up Version 2.0: "I Think I'm Paranoid," "Push It" and "Special." (See the Garbage setlist here.)

A trio of tunes from 2016's Strange Little Birds also complemented soundtrack singles "#1 Crush" and "The World Is Not Enough," and I was quite glad to hear the poignant "Cup of Coffee," which Manson introduced as a song chronicling a broken relationship due to betrayal.

Befitting a night showcasing great women of rock, Manson referenced another one--the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde--on the "Brass in Pocket"-influenced "Special," with a touch of "Talk of the Town" tossed in.

I also couldn't help noticing that prominently shown on Ravinia's big screens advertising upcoming shows were ones by Aretha Franklin and Stevie Nicks.

The loquacious Manson was quite gracious throughout, noting that Ravinia's hometown--Highland Park--shared the name of her favorite single malt whiskey, and also telling how the Garbage men first saw her perform at Chicago's Metro (with her old band, Angelfish) in 1994, and thus Chicago has always felt like a second home for the band.

Though she never did introduce her bandmates onstage--thus I'm not certain Jane Addiction's Eric Avery is still the touring bassist--Manson made a point of extolling Doe & Cervenka on their last night with this tour, and proclaiming the huge influence Blondie had on her band.

Thus I was especially glad that after nearly 40 years of being a fan, I finally got to see original members Debbie Harry, Chris Stein, Clem Burke and the rest of modern-day Blondie.

At 72, Harry--who may well get my vote as the most attractive woman ever to be a rock star--remains quite striking, so it was a bit strange that she took the stage, to the blistering strains of "One Way or Another," wearing an insect mask.

It was only after she took it off after a second classic--"Hanging on the Telephone"--that she explained the prop correlated to the title of Blondie's current album, Pollinator.

To the band's credit, four songs from Pollinator--"Fun," "My Monster" (written by Johnny Marr), "Too Much" and "Long Time"--sounded quite strong among the hits of yore, including "Call Me," "Rapture," "Atomic," "Heart of Glass," "The Tide is High" and a closing "Dreaming."

If it was still 1980, when with a string of #1 singles Blondie was one of the biggest bands in the world, it's not hard to imagine some of the new tunes receiving ubiquitous radio play.

As it is, Debbie Harry remains cool and confident enough to perform wearing a leotard, and her voice sounded terrific throughout the 80-minute set.

Though the band had broken up between 1982-1997, meaning I was too young to have really seen them during their heyday, even in first catching them 43 years after their formation and 20 since their reunion, I feel that for the most part, I still got the quintessential Blondie experience.

So all in all, it was a really delightful night to celebrate women who rock--and their excellent bands--still very much in the present tense.

(See Blondie's setlist here.)

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