On Wednesday night, I was one of approximately 600 sardines crammed into Manhattan’s Bowery Ballroom for a very special concert. We were packed so tightly, I couldn’t move an inch; even clapping felt like a precarious use of my elbows. Did I mention it is August, in New York, and the humidity has been hovering around 75 percent for days? If this show were mediocre, or even just good, I might have lasted half the set at best. But there was no way I was leaving. Because we were there, in an impossibly small club, seeing the rock legends the Pretenders.
The night before, Chrissie Hynde and company had played for a crowd roughly 100 times larger, opening for Guns N’ Roses at MetLife Stadium. But on this tour — the band’s first since it had to cancel its 2020 shows because of, well, 2020 — the Pretenders are doing something unexpected and fun: In between those huge stadium gigs, they’re playing smaller capacity venues like the Atlantis in Washington, D.C. and the iconic Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J.
At MetLife, they played the hits: “Brass in Pocket,” “Back on the Chain Gang,” “I’ll Stand by You.” The set list at the Bowery leaned more heavily on deep cuts and fan favorites. I knew and loved some of these already, but I confess my knowledge of the Pretenders’ catalog skews more toward the mainstream, so the Bowery show also opened my ears to a few great tunes with which I was unfamiliar — and which, of course, I want to share with you in today’s playlist, which is culled entirely from Wednesday night’s set.
At 71, Hynde still carries herself like one of the coolest and most badass people on the planet. She commanded the stage with her skunked-out black eye makeup, spitfire attitude and impressively strong pipes; as ever, she sings in a singular, sneering enunciation that’s neither American nor British, but more as if the birth country listed on her passport was just “rock ’n’ roll.” (She still loves repping her home state, Ohio, though, as this playlist will show.)
Though Hynde is the only original member touring with this iteration of the Pretenders (Martin Chambers, the group’s original, on-again-off-again drummer, sent his regards, Hynde told the crowd), the band absolutely smokes. The standout is the lead guitarist James Walbourne, who has the skills and the hairdo of a rockabilly virtuoso. He’s toured with the band since 2008 and has co-written two Pretenders albums with Hynde: the 2020 LP “Hate for Sale” and the band’s forthcoming 12th album “Relentless,” which will be out Sept. 15.
“To live forever, that’s the plan, the longest living mortal man,” Hynde sings on “Let the Sun Come In,” an anthemic single from “Relentless.” It’s tongue-in-cheek, but also haunting given the band’s history with untimely death: Two original members, the guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and the bassist Pete Farndon, died of drug-related causes shortly after the band’s second album was released.
Hynde has seen firsthand how fleeting rock stardom — even life itself — can be, and she’s let her survivor’s grit guide her now for more than four decades. The Bowery show was a reminder that she’s a living legend, not to be taken for granted — a woman in a man’s world who refused to sand down her rough edges or follow someone else’s playbook to artistic fulfillment. “We don’t have to fade to black,” she sang on Wednesday night, still tough as nails. “Let the sun come in.”
Listen along on Spotify as you read.
1. “Turf Accountant Daddy”
This pummeling, bluesy rock number about a no-good bookie comes from the 2020 album “Hate for Sale.” In classic Pretenders fashion, it features a finger-wagging vocal, blustery distortion and a reference to a city in Ohio: “She’ll never know in Cincinnati/He’s never gonna show, the turf accountant daddy.” (Listen on YouTube)
2. “Downtown (Akron)”
Speaking of Ohio: Here’s a propulsive ode to Hynde’s hometown, from the 1990 album “Packed!” C’mon! (Listen on YouTube)
3. “Time the Avenger”
Hynde can really cut a self-important man down to size with her observant lyricism and eye-rolling delivery. She chides an unfaithful businessman in this jittery tune from the Pretenders’ classic 1984 album “Learning to Crawl,” but she conveys some empathy for his futile attempts to outrun the nagging metronome of mortality: “Time to kill another bottle of wine, to help paralyze that little tick, tick, tick, tick.” (Listen on YouTube)
4. “Boots of Chinese Plastic (Live)”
This galloping rocker kicks off the Pretenders’ 2008 album “Break Up the Concrete,” though this version, from the 2010 release “Live in London,” best captures the kinetic energy of the band’s Bowery show. (Listen on YouTube)
I love this lyric, which comes toward the end of this road-weary, rockabilly-influenced tune from 1984: “It must seem strange, love was here then gone/And the Oklahoma sunrise becomes the Amarillo dawn.” (Listen on YouTube)
A short version of this cry-in-your-shot-glass ballad appeared on the 1994 album “Last of the Independents,” but at the Bowery, Hynde and her band played the full song, which has been released on various bonus collections and deluxe editions over the years. “I drink tequila,” she sings in the song’s opening moments, “’cause I can’t have your lips tonight.” (Listen on YouTube)
7. “Gotta Wait”
A dark, antsy energy propels this blown-out track off “Alone,” the 2016 album that Hynde recorded with a cast of session musicians and the producer Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys (another Akron band). Time, once again, is the avenger here: “You gotta wait, wait, hold the date and hesitate — wait.” (Listen on YouTube)
8. “You Can’t Hurt a Fool”
Performing this soulful ballad from “Hate for Sale,” Hynde delivered perhaps her most impassioned vocal of the night, briefly casting aside the armor of her guitar and getting vulnerable. “You can’t hurt a fool,” she crooned sorrowfully. “Don’t even try.” (Listen on YouTube)
9. “Let the Sun Come In”
This guitar-driven tune — one of several “Relentless” tracks the band played at the Bowery — plays out like an elegy to lost band members and a galvanic call to keep writing, touring and rocking out: “With a soul that can’t be perished,” Hynde sings, “with a song that’s always cherished.” (Listen on YouTube)
Poetically barbed and spikily self-assured, “Precious” kicks off the Pretenders’ indelible self-titled 1979 debut and introduces Hynde as a transfixing, take-no-prisoners talent. Honeyman-Scott’s guitar crouches in wait and pounces into action at the perfect moment, while the tight rhythm section keeps the tempo at an aggressive strut. “Not me, baby, I’m too precious,” Hynde sneers at the song’s thrilling climax, before hocking one of rock history’s most well-earned expletives like an expertly aimed spitball. (Listen on YouTube)
You shouldn’t let your manners slip,
The Amplifier Playlist
Listen on Spotify. We update this playlist with each new newsletter.
“Get Close: 10 Gems From the Pretenders” track list
Track 1: “Turf Accountant Daddy”
Track 2: “Downtown (Akron)”
Track 3: “Time the Avenger”
Track 4: “Boots of Chinese Plastic (Live)”
Track 5: “Thumbelina”
Track 6: “Tequila”
Track 7: “Gotta Wait”
Track 8: “You Can’t Hurt a Fool”
Track 9: “Let the Sun Come In”
Track 10: “Precious”
In today’s new music Playlist, there’s a just-released song from the Pretenders’ tour mates Guns N’ Roses, plus a previously unreleased Joni Mitchell demo, Dolly Parton’s Beatles reunion and much more. Listen here.