The Pretenders play a legendary good show at Lafayette in London

This week in February is the annual Independent Venue Week in the UK. This is the UK’s annual seven-day celebration of independent music and arts venues and the people who own, manage and work in them.

During the week, independent venues come together with artists, promoters, agents, record labels and the media to host a unique series of special live events across the UK to highlight the work that these venues do all year round. It brings local communities together to celebrate these special places with thousands of artists playing hundreds of shows in villages, towns and cities across the UK. A great initiative that gives you the opportunity to see great artists perform in often very special and small venues all over the country.  

An exclusive mini-tour of 5 small venues by none other than Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame legends The Pretenders was the biggest surprise of this year’s Independent Venue Week. The chance to see this band, who normally only play big festivals and arenas, in a small club made it easy to decide to travel to London, where the band played at the Lafayette, a tiny venue on the border between King’s Cross and Camden. The club is entirely unremarkable, tucked away behind the hip new entertainment district of Coal Drops Yard. No posters, no garish neon signs, nothing to suggest to passers-by that the Pretenders would be playing here that night. The lucky few who had tickets moved around the yuppies eating and drinking downstairs to descend through a steep tap into the small club with an even smaller balcony. The atmosphere was right, this is how a rock club should be.  Frontwoman and rock icon Chrissie Hynde had already announced that she was looking forward to returning, if only for a while, to the small stages where rock is best. We are here to represent you, not the fashion industry or the vomit-inducing Grammy culture”. So says the high priestess of rock’n’roll on her social media. 

At precisely half past eight local time, the lights dimmed and the band entered the tiny stage, accompanied by a recording of Maria Callas singing “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” from Bizet’s “Carmen”. There they were. Just an arm’s length away. Even before a chord had been played, the audience could feel the tension rising. They started furiously with ‘Losing Sense’, a song new to everyone in the room. It had only been on stage for the first time the day before at the Manchester gig. On stage, of course, was Chrissie herself, in good voice, although the sound needed some adjustment during the first few songs. Next to her was James Walbourne, the furiously rocking guitar hero. At this gig he would successfully claim the honorary title of ‘epic guitar god’. At the back of the stage, behind the drums, we saw the biggest surprise of the evening.

There sat Kristoffer Sonne in place of Primal Pretender Martin Chambers. Sonne is an insanely powerful and tight drummer. Nick Wilkinson was on bass, a position he has held in the band since 2005. We could safely say that Chrissie Hynde was on stage with rock’n’roll sensation His Lordship. His Lordship is the other tub of Walbourne and Wilkinson.  No reason was given why Martin Chambers didn’t show up, and when I asked the management, no answer came back. It is not known if this line-up includes the musicians Hynde is working with on the Pretenders’ new album, which is due out later this year. This question was also left unanswered by management. 

None of this mattered for the party in Lafayette. From the get-go, they seemed to connect with each other and with the crowd. James Walbourne strummed his Gibson like a madman, rising above himself.  He made his guitar moan, whine, scream, whisper, howl, and pound. If Carl Gustav Jung had known James Walbourne at the time, he might have scratched himself behind his ears when he finished his theory of human archetypes. A deep bow to this musician, a very deep bow.

Chrissie Hynde had announced the shows as ‘Two guitars, bass & drums, no hits….well, maybe a few'”‘ and she had made the right choice. The Pretenders unleashed the beast in London. Hynde is still the rocker who makes no concessions and remains true to herself. When the band plays 2020’s “Turf Accountant Daddy” back-to-back with 1978’s “Kid”, it is a testament to the band’s consistency over the decades. The Pretenders can’t be broken as long as Chrissie Hynde continues to lead. What a powerful woman!

Chrissie was having a great time too. During the first part of the show, she was regularly using foul language and swearing at someone in the audience who was taking too many close-up photos of her. ‘Fuck off!,’ she bit the photographer several times. Later in the show, Hynde apologized to the person: ‘I’ve never cursed anyone as much as you, not even a boyfriend, so I’m sorry.’

As the show went on, the genie got further and further out of the bottle. Those in Lafayette will never forget this performance. Rock as it should be. Bold, rough, hard, dirty, imperfect, sweat, heat, flickering make-up, pounding drums, and His Lordship’s rhythm section laying down an inescapable rhythmic whip over the band. The energy in the room easily broke through the freshly set energy ceiling. Only it was not an excess of energy, it was generated energy. Had we been able to feed that energy back, there would have been no energy crisis.

A furious version of “Message of Love” and the equally intense “Junkie Walk” were highlights of the show. The audience was also treated to a first. The band played the new song “Let The Sun Come In” for the first time that night. If the new work is a prelude to the new album, it promises that the band will continue the upward trajectory that became apparent with the last album, “Hate For Sale”.

The band finished with a furious version of “Tattooed Love Boys” after more than an hour and a half of uninterrupted rock history on this small stage.

Chrissie Hynde and her Pretenders showed that the ideal habitat for a rock band is a small stage. The energy can spill over to the audience and magic can happen. Later this year, the Pretenders will be touring the UK,  Europe and the rest of the world in support of their new album. And then, unfortunately, on the big stages because, as Hynde, herself said, ‘We can’t keep playing small clubs as much as we love them. (Alternatively, we could raise ticket prices from £25 to £750, but that would defeat the whole small gig ethos).’ Let’s hope we get to see the band like this again someday. It was a legendary night.

Photo’s (c) Mike Gray

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