Johnette Napolitano keeps on rockin’ in the New World
IT HAS BEEN ALMOST A QUARTER CENTURY SINCE THE release of the breakthrough album “Bloodletting,” but Concrete Blonde vocalist and bass player Johnette Napolitano still has “the ways and means” and on Thursday, January 9, she will take the stage at Rhythm & Brews in a rare solo performance culled from the greatest moments of a music career spanning four decades.
Although she is best known for her work with Concrete Blonde (her well-crafted lyrics, cool bass riffs and unique voice led the band to the forefront of the alternative music scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s) Napolitano has had a no-less-impressive solo career.
Numerous albums, guest shots and collaborations read like a “who’s who” of classic new wave, pop, punk and alt-rock performers. Debbie Harry, Richard Hell, Richard Gano, The Talking Heads (minus David Byrne) and Wall of Voodoo founder Marc Moreland are just a few of the artists and performers that have shared the stage and the studio with Napolitano.
If one may accurately judge a musician by the company they keep, then clearly she was and is a well-respected member of alternative music’s classic hierarchy.
Unwilling to limit herself to the standard “rock star” persona, Johnette has an extensive resume of musical contributions to television and motion picture soundtracks, production credits, voice work, acting, writing—and is a visual artist to boot.
In short, she is a Renaissance woman thriving on artistic expression, driven by the need to create. Mirthful and mischievous, she has an easy laugh particularly when discussing her own work. When asked how she came to choose bass as her instrument the key word seemed to be “necessity.”
“I didn’t set out to play bass,” she recalls, “but we couldn’t keep a bass player and so I had to learn to play bass. It was hard to play. I’ve been playing guitar since I was nine years old, but it was really hard to learn to play bass and sing at the same time.”
Her bass playing is solid, well-suited to the music, but it necessarily takes a back seat to the distinguishing feature that makes her instantly recognizable, whether listening to a track from ’83 or 2013: her voice. Her dynamic range is a study in contrasts, moving seamlessly between extremes. Low, smooth, seductive and enveloping one moment, lashing out with the fury of a hurricane the next—and then back again while you’re still reeling from the power of it.
Power is a key description, too; she has a magnificently powerful voice, and while some singers necessarily trade power for subtlety, that seems a choice she has never had to make. She is capable of shaking the rafters without ever losing her mastery of nuance and inflection. At times it seems she doesn’t sing so much as she emotes.
Indeed, a voice like Johnette’s is all by itself enough to build a career on, Linda Ronstadt certainly did—but fortunately for the music world, Napolitano isn’t resigned to singing other people’s music beautifully. She is as skilled a lyricist as she is a vocalist and that’s saying a lot.
The song “Joey” was Concrete Blonde’s biggest commercial hit, a gut-wrenching anthem to the ravages of an alcoholic relationship based on her relationship with Wall of Voodoo founder Marc Moreland. The song is a masterpiece, and it is her honest lyrics and heartbreaking vocals that make it so.
The lyrics avoid the banality of so many other songs on the subject. There is no schmaltz. No one who has ever witnessed (or, bless them all, been a participant in) a relationship being torn apart by the bottle can hear this tune and not recognize its naked authenticity, and in capturing this both lyrically and vocally, Napolitano effectively becomes the voice for everyone who has “been there.”
That, friends, is the mark of a real artist; that separates the poseur from the pro.
The show promises to be an acoustic exploration of familiar favorites, exciting new material, some spoken-word and some readings from her 2010 book, “Rough Mix,” an insight into the thoughts and experiences of this phenomenally talented and versatile woman (the book also contains original lyrics and artwork further substantiating her “Renaissance” status.) There is no doubt that the show will be entertaining, but it promises to be so much more than that.
Poignant, emotionally engaging, an intimate evening with one of the most unique, talented and respected artists of a generation; miss this rare opportunity and you will regret it ever after.