Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 30, 2019)
Back in 2005-06, VH1 aired a short-lived series called Decades Rock Live. Across its handful of episodes, long-established artists would team with various guests.
From summer 2006, Pretenders: With Friends brings us the Chrissie Hynde-led band plus a mix of partners. The show mostly focuses on Pretenders’ material but it also integrates a few of the guests’ tracks as well.
From 1980’s Pretenders, we find “Precious”, “Up the Neck” (with Kings of Leon), “The Wait”, “Brass in Pocket” and “Mystery Achievement”. 1981’s Pretenders II delivers “Message of Love” (with Incubus), “Talk of the Town” (with Shirley Manson), and “Day After Day”.
With 1984’s Learning to Crawl, we locate “Back on the Chain Gang” and “Middle of the Road” (with Iggy Pop, Shirley Manson, Kings of Leon and Incubus). For the final Pretenders songs, we discover “The Losing” and “Fools Must Die” (with Iggy Pop) off of 2002’s Loose Screw.
The remaining tracks stem from the guests’ catalogs. “Only Happy When It Rains” derives from Shirley Manson’s band Garbage, and Kings of Leon’s “The Bucket” appears. Incubus earns representation from “Drive” and Iggy Pop’s “Candy” finishes matters.
Note that this doesn’t include the full set from the August 2006 concert. For pure Pretenders performances, this release drops “Night in My Veins” and “Don’t Get Me Wrong”.
The set also omits two Incubus tracks via “A Kiss to Send Us Off” and “Anna Molly” as well as a Manson duet on Pretenders’ “Kid”. Kings of Leon’s “Molly’s Chambers” and Iggy Pop’s “Lie to Me” also get the boot.
Though part of the original concert, I’d guess that they didn’t make the broadcast and thus fail to appear here. It seems like a shame that this release doesn’t present the entire, uncut show – or at least add the other songs as bonus tracks.
To me, the guest spots become the iffiest aspects of the show. That’s less a reflection on the caliber of the added musicians and more a view of the tentative nature of their performances.
My biggest disappointment came from Manson’s turn. I love Garbage, and Shirley is a simply stellar frontwoman, one who dominates the stage and imposes her will on an audience.
You wouldn’t get that from her appearance here. Shirley idolizes Hynde, and I suspect that nerves played a big part in her lackluster spot.
Oh, Manson sounds fine, and since she and Hynde share similar voices, the two blend well. However, Shirley – as dynamic as could be at Garbage shows – seems painfully reserved here. The two Manson/Pretenders tracks are decent but given how good I know Shirley can be, they come as a letdown.
I saw Kings of Leon open for U2 in 2005 and then again as the intro to Pearl Jam in 2008. Their 2005 performances seemed completely forgettable, but by 2008, they’d developed into a pretty tight, engaging live act.
Unfortunately, the Kings seen here lean toward that underwhelming 2005 iteration. Because they weren’t impressive back then, I’m not surprised they seem overmatched on stage with the Pretenders, but the dire lack of magnetism from anyone in Kings makes their performance inert.
Unlike the other three guests, I never saw Incubus, and until I got this disc, I’m not sure I’d ever heard any of their songs. Based on the tracks found here, they seem just as tentative as Shirley and the Kings.
“Drive” strikes me as forgettable, and the version of “Message of Love” also fails to ignite. Incubus vocalist Brandon Boyd holds his own, but the decision to use Incubus as the almost-full band instead of Pretenders doesn’t work, as Incubus plays a drab version of the song.
Of the whole bunch, only Iggy Pop can be seen as a peer of Hynde’s. Granted, Iggy’s recording career started a good decade before Chrissie’s, but the two are close to the same age, so I see them as generationally similar.
In any case, it’s clear Iggy wouldn’t suffer from the same sense of intimidation, and he definitely offers the most magnetic presence of the guests. Indeed, Iggy essentially takes over the stage during his tracks, so he easily becomes the strongest of the bunch.
The show fares best when it simply sticks with Pretenders sans accompaniment. Even though most of the songs were already 20-plus years old by the time of this concert, Hynde delivers them with gusto, and her voice sounds as strong as ever.
Original members Pete Farndon and James Honeyman-Scott died back in the band’s early years, so in addition to Hynde, only drummer Martin Chambers remains from the founding version. Not that he’s been a constant, as he quit in 1986 and didn’t return until 1994.
Still, that makes Chambers a pretty steady member of the band, and he’s the only thing that keeps “Pretenders” from being strictly “The Chrissie Hynde Band”. Admittedly, it’s always been unclear how much of a “real band” Pretenders were, but at least Chambers ensures another connection to the original lineup.
Newer members Adam Seymour on guitar and Nick Wilkinson on bass perform ably. They’re not flashy but they do the job.
In terms of the home video presentation itself, Pretenders comes from one flaw: too damned many crowd shots. These subside somewhat as the program progresses, but I still think we find too many of them, and they create a sporadic annoyance.
Otherwise, director Milton Lage shows good restraint. The program lacks any visual affectations, and Lage makes no attempt to turn this into a long music video.
Editing seems fairly sedate, and this allows us to enjoy the show without cheap, tacky attempts to “enliven” the proceedings. I appreciate that, as too many concert shows work overtime to throw visual “flair” our way.
Overall, Pretenders with Friends becomes erratic but enjoyable. It works best when it concentrates on its title band.