Liquid heat in a Chicago summer. I'm at the House of Blues waiting for a night where I can't expect or anticipate anything. The venue reeks of a former glory in the process of cashing out. A man stands in the bathroom reading an iPad waiting for his tip. There are tables near the stage, but you have to pay extra for a seat. The bar televisions use security cameras to relay a grainy stage feed for general admission holders. Apparently only special tickets get you close to the stage.
House of Blues feels empty and expensive; It's a Grunge Night rebranded as a catch- phrase on a gas station shot glass. Welcome to your youthful glory years. The 90s are a brand bought and sold in your Local Urban Outfitter along side that old school compact disk. Tonight we will all learn if Courtney Love has bridged the generation gap into a new era or if this is another greatest hits revival no one wants to hear.
Corporate cynicism permeates the space as bouncers and suits swim the crowds making sure people are drinking enough, spending enough. Daddy has a boat to buy, and I should help by picking up that hot dog for $4. In their eyes we are all the 99%.
STARRED has just begun, the sleezy anxiety of profit margins and tourist traps falls secondary to the first legitimate performance of the night. It's fascinating to watch the crowd. Empty and haunting guitar noise divide people between complete captivation and indifference, yet one can still tell a real sonic treat is about to be unfurled through the disguise of auditory minimalism.
Genuine applause and cheering erupt as the rest of the young band fills out on stage with a sound that sits somewhere between guitars tuning up between sets, and full throated vocals. You're never sure if STARRED has just rocked your world or left you with a half cocked sneeze never to be expelled. It has been a long time since we've been exposed to good music that forces you to actually listen, and those in the crowd truly listening are rewarded with a memorable experience.
These are capital "A" Artists so engrossed in their instruments and fine tuning of the soundscape it's completely unnecessary to actually observe the stage; which is no worry since there is a minimum of lighting showcasing the band. Some degree of inexperience bleeds through the excellent sound in the absence of showmanship, a good show is not just about good music, but a good performance as well, and if you're more focused on tuning a pedal than playing to a crowd you have not come into your full as a band. As musicians they understand their craft, and showmen they're as green as a high school bad that hasn't practiced playing in front of a mirror.
Through their set STARRED keeps trying to bring you a full throated rock song, but holds back from that crescendo. it was impossible to tell if that was a deliberate creative choice or inexperience, it's clear to see STARRED is an excellent band, but they're early in their performance history and like a fine wine that's still young, you look forward to what they will look like next year. As the curtain closes on STARRED's opening performance the chatter returns to the room and a critical eye sees a lot of room to grow.
30 minutes pass from STARRED to Love. The performance starts before the curtains rise. The room has packed itself in the meantime to catch a glimpse of the rock goddess from a bygone era. Years of performance have taught Courtney Love well. The anticipation in the room is palpable. The stage brightens as the curtains draw back and real Love floods the space as Courtney walks out. The crowd completely connects. For a genuine moment this crowd has forgotten the cost of drinks, tables that come with a separate ticket, and rampant commercialism of a venue doing more business from tourists than bands. These people are suddenly back in the 90s and the heyday of modern Rock and Roll.
When Ms. Love sings, she's raw around the edges, and considering the real fear of bands returned from retirement is an over polished performance, the cracks in her voice are genuine and authentic, not the early onset of a weary rock star.
The crowd sings along. Courtney is in complete command. The sound and light crew has finally woken up and decided to be on the job. If every Grunge star we had left looked and felt like tonight, the 90s wouldn't be trying to come back, it never would have left. For whatever stumbles may have been, this leg of the tour was firing on all cylinders. This iteration of Ms. Love is worth spending money to see. Not just an out of control misery tour or a rapid fire recycle of hit singles, this is a well practiced band perfectly comfortable and riffing with the audience.
Good natured middle fingers and "F*u*c*k You's" pepper the night from Courtney and audience alike. It's an authenticity long thought dead with the rebranding of MTV and the rise of Pirate Bay. Some boy throws his underwear on stage, the song stops for everyone to have a laugh. The crowd has come home.
The 90s Grunge era was a decade pockmarked with death, egos, and band implosions. There is poetic justice that in the end Courtney Love turns out to be one of the greatest enduring icons of an era known for its casualties.
Ms. Love is having genuine fun, adding to the overwhelming feeling this room is far more connected than anyone may be willing to admit. The audience is clearly a factor tonight. These aren't kids or burnouts from a failed era, these are adults where dreams were deferred from a day in September, two wars, and an economy wiped out. Waistlines and hairlines don't matter this evening as Courtney Love reminds us all that "Rock didn't die."
I'm in the back of the hall typing away as the crowd presses in with sweat and energy. My pants vibrate in time with the music. The songs stop as Courtney interrogates the audience regarding a suspicious gathering of humans in the middle of the floor; "Did a Mosh Pit just break out? F*u*c*k*e*r*s! Go ask your Dad's about it!". Maybe she doesn't realize those Moms and Dads are here tonight, but too worried about the insurance claim to risk breaking an arm.
45 minutes in, Courtney Love tells us she's sent flowers to Pearl Jam for their Wrigley Field show tomorrow night, and revels in how a small life goal just got fulfilled with that novelty. Sneaking a fast drag off a cigarette she goes full diesel back into the set with her electric energy band. The cavalier attitude cuts raw against the controlled craft of reunion bands and aging stars. She has plenty at risk with a return tour, and has owned the moment by owning her own fear failure. And such is the mark of any confident artist that has become intimate with the big F. Courtney Love is a rock star that knows the world she's performing in, and has the experience to run the game at full tilt.
Cellphones long ago replaced lighters as the icon of approval for a concert show, and if you can measure success from the Instagram and Twitter backdrops and clogged network connections this audience has resoundingly voiced their approval of a performer that may never escape her history, but now doesn't have to...because its just another battle scar of pride where the best days are still ahead. The songs and tempos change from piece to piece, but the energy on stage clearly sustains through the night. This is a band fit enough to rock all night long, and this is a crowd ready and willing.
As a man it's easy to forget how few strong rocking women there were in grunge, like most things it was male dominated, and we took it for granted. A second look over the crowd forces reflection on those teen preconceptions regarding gender and rock. Clearly a whole generation of women have always seen her differently than just Kurt Cobain's wife. To the women in this room tonight Courtney Love is a survivor, a Phoenix triumphant. And to a more open minded and younger generation of men she's an undeniable powerhouse and their best touchstone to an era when music was still discovered in a city instead of created in a focus group.
Whether we know it or not Courtney Love is a new champion of an old era and fully ready to carry the torch forward into our current decade that still hasn't found its feet and all too willing to reach into a self-referential past for some sense of guidance.
Flowers just landed on stage. Posies. The wall of sound continues and Courtney Love looks like she just took the stage. Never mind we're over an hour into the performance with smoke breaks. A stranger would think the show just started. The night ends on a second encore with Doll Parts. The room has thinned to fair weather fans and those looking for a cheap hookup.
Tonight was a stellar show from a performer who has learned her lessons the hard way, but still knows how to give and present a fun way of life. STARRED should benefit greatly from touring with someone like Courtney Love, and if tonight stands emblematic for days to come, I welcome this resurgent of our Grunge Queen.