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Pretenders Debut New Lineup, Material at Nissan Live Sets

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The Pretenders treated a group of lucky fans and invited guests to a sneak preview of their new lineup and material, performing an 11-song set for Yahoo Music’s Nissan Live Sets on Monday, August 11.

Chrissie Hynde has kept this band going for nearly thirty years, with a regularly shifting alliance of musicians. The band found its most stable lineup between 1993 and 2006, with original drummer Martin Chambers, bassist Andy Hobson and guitarist Adam Seymour, which toured regularly and recorded four decent-to-forgettable albums together. For this outing, only original drummer Chambers remains. The newcomers are James Walbourne on lead guitar, Nick Wilkinson on bass, and surprise, pedal steel player Eric Heywood. The sight of a pedal steel on the stage was the first indication of a sea change in the band’s sound; yes, the city was gone so the Pretenders decided to head back to the country.

And surprise, it works like a charm. The new blood seems to have had a good effect on Hynde, who's responded to the change with her strongest collection of songs since Learning to Crawl. (Two songs are available for listening on their myspace page here.)

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Hynde's undimmed vocal power is a big part of the reason it works. She's one of the greatest rock singers of all time, after all, and it's very satisfying to hear some new material that's worthy of the instrument. Introducing the brand-new Rosalee over a chorus of shouted requests, she says, "Just think, in twenty-five more years, this will be a classic, and you'll be yelling for this instead of Brass In Fuckin' Pocket!" It's not hard to imagine the possibility of a Pretenders gig in 2033 where people are yelling for these tunes. They'll be on their twentieth lead guitarist by then but Chrissie will still be looking good.

It's not going to be a purist's approach to the source material anyway. "I always HATED country music when I was growing up," said Hynde to a fan who had asked her if the new album should be "considered part of the country genre." "I prefer Country and Eastern," quipped Chambers. As they break out the rarely heard stomper Thumbelina, you're reminded that it really isn't that much of a stretch, they've had those tendencies ever since their early days.

Walbourne, meanwhile, restores much of the swagger that's been missing from stage right since the passing of James Honeyman-Scott. The long line of Honeyman-Scott's replacements have all been fine players, but a tad too polite, sometimes to the point of being anonymous. (Hynde admitted as much in her 2005 Hall Of Fame induction speech, in which she noted "I know that the Pretenders have looked like a tribute band for the last 20 years. ... And we're paying tribute to James Honeyman Scott and Pete Farndon, without whom we wouldn't be here.")

But with all due respect, these guys don't have that problem. For the first time since 1982, we have a band of recognizable faces again. What Walbourne, Heywood and Wilkinson bring with them besides professionalism is a sense of pending explosion, a recklessness that Hynde hasn't allowed on her stage ever since those early days.

When they do play their early material, sidestepping most of their major hits but breaking out fan favorites like Kid, Talk Of The Town and a frantic reading of The Wait to close things out, the energy in the room is almost unbearable. Day After Day is just about perfect, sounding every bit as gorgeous as it did on arrival in 1981. With Heywood adding subtle slide touches under the familiar arrangements, they bring a new life to the repertoire that was distinctly absent the last time I saw them, opening for Neil Young in 2001. They were good then, perfectly competent, but they weren't about to blow anything up.

This felt completely different. And as a fan, that's reason to celebrate. It was a little sad last year, watching the Pretenders take the middle spot in between the Stray Cats and ZZ Top on the "High School Reunion Tour." (Here in So Cal the whole package got to open for Stevie Nicks, if you can imagine that.) The one-time radical up there with the other oldies acts, giving people their money's worth by not doing any new songs, just didn't feel right. One senses this group won't be content to just go out and play the old hits for a while.

The new album Break Up The Concrete will be released by Shangri-La Records on September 23. The Pretenders' appearance on Nissan Live Sets On Yahoo will premiere on October 1. Check the site for additional information and shows.