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July 25 - Rochester - Rochester Castle

by Kevin Lees

The only previous time that I had seen The Pretenders live was in Bournemouth last November when they were supporting UB40. I went with my wife who is a longstanding fan of both groups. UB40 were great - they have a superb [big band] stage set and the sound they produce is exceptional. The Pretenders approach was much more low-key - almost unplugged (not quiet!) by comparison. On balance, that night I preferred the Pretenders and said that I would like to see them do a full concert - as the main act.

I forgot all about that until I heard Chrissie Hynde on the Johnny Walker show on BBC Radio 2 one night on a drive to North Wales with some work colleagues. He was interviewing her and they discussed her current UK tour. I didn't know she was in the UK so I checked on the Web and found details on the Pretenders Archives site (thanks for that).

Living in Hampshire, it was disappointing to find that the Frome concert at Babington House in Somerset had passed. That sounded like a great location. Of those left, the Guildford concert was the nearest. However, we decided to go to Rochester Castle in Kent because I visualized the setting as preferable to the Guildford Guildfest, which would be a bit more crowded.

We took our 2 children - Rebecca (13) and Robert (10) - with us. My liking for The Pretenders centres on 2 audiocassettes that I have - Isle of View and The Singles. The latter is permanently in my car. I am one of those people who play a cassette constantly for several weeks and then move on to another. I have dozens of cassettes - from Status Quo and Elvis to T Rex and Bob Dylan. But the Pretenders cassette is one that comes round again more than most of the others - probably Dylan gets most plays because he has recorded much more. As a result the kids get a bit brainwashed with the music. But I think Robert is a real fan of The Pretenders - along with Oasis and many of the other current groups! Rebecca is not quite as enthusiastic.

The visit to Rochester was going to be a family outing with the intention of seeing a bit of the area and stopping off at Brighton on the way back.

We had already booked a room at the Old Bull and Victoria Hotel on Rochester high street and drove there from our home in Hampshire. We unloaded our luggage, booked in and then went for a look round. Starting with a walk up to the castle - literally 2 minutes away.

Rochester Castle is an old Norman Castle built in the 11th Century. It turned out to be a great setting for a concert. The audience is fully enclosed within the walled castle grounds. The lawn area slopes gently up from the stage towards the castle keep. The picture at http://www.castles-abbeys.co.uk/Rochester-Castle/Rochester-Castle2.jpg gives you a good feel for the surroundings. The stage was to the right of the canon as you look at the picture.

After our reconnaissance visit we went down by Rochester Pier to have our tea and then back to the hotel to change and collect something warmer to put on later in the evening.

We returned to the castle at about 7.15pm. No hurry as there were several entrances - we just went straight in. Light sturdy plastic folding chairs were available for you to place where you wanted. There was no fixed seating and no reserved area. A lot of people had brought their own seats and some had tables and picnics. Although the night wasn't particular warm and the weather was a bit cloudy but, thankfully, no rain.

We decided to sit at the back because there were 2 large video screens - one either side of the stage - so there was no need to be too close. The video screens turned out to be just ordinary screens, so we found ourselves a little distance away but with a clear view down towards the stage.
Midge Ure was first on. Opening for The Pretenders at 8.15pm on a summers night, with a couple of hours daylight left, is a bit of a challenge for anyone. He did well and the crowd warmed to him as his set progressed. He puts maximum effort into his shows and clearly still enjoys it. He left the stage with most people keyed up for the main act.

The Pretenders came on at about 9.15pm after the customary "claps of thunder" recording. I only have a mental note of the songs but I think all of these were sung on the night:

Fools Must Die
Message of Love
Talk of the Town
Time the Avenger
Everyday Like Sunday
Nothing Breaks Like A Heart
977
Kid
Homecoming
I Go to Sleep
Chain Gang
Don't Get Me Wrong
Night in my Veins
Middle of the Road
Thin Line Between Love and Hate
Mystery Achievements
I'll Stand By You
Brass in Pocket
Stop Your Sobbing

She started with a more obscure track (to me) - probably Fools Must Die. And I know she sang Night in My Veins during the first half-hour. That was another new song for me.

What became obvious is that open-air concerts that start relatively early in the evening with a reasonable admission fee are not just for fans. Also the keenest members of the audience are at the front where there is more atmosphere. We experienced both of these aspects. Some of the sound was dissipating before it got to us and the people around us did not seem particularly interested in the concert. There were 5 or 6 young people behind who talked loudly from when we arrived. This didn't, as I expected, stop when the live music started. An older couple in front of us was motionless throughout - no singing, no cheering, and not even a clap at the end of a song. All of that put a slight dampener on proceedings for the first 30 minutes or so.

But Chrissie Hynde seemed to be enjoying herself. Certainly the surroundings must have been stimulating and she had a few hardcore fans at the front egging her on. After 4 or 5 numbers, she did the normal band intros including the Duke String Quartet, who, I note, were on the Isle of View video. Not sure if it was the same musicians. They were excellent - strings certainly enhanced the environment. She introduced the rest of the band and the lead guitarist introduced her. I recall this was almost word for word the same as at Bournemouth.

The other members of the group are all equally excellent. Chrissie introduced Martin Chambers as one of the best drummers in the world and I think he probably is up there with the best. The lead guitarist, Adam Seymour, is very talented.

Then Miss Hynde did her normal swearing bit. Out of the blue she just came out with "If you eat meat you can fuck off!" I have no problem with the swearing and I am sure my children hear it when they're out with their friends but some of the older people were more than nonplussed by it and I think a couple left. Whether they were meat eaters remains a mystery. Presumably the bulk of the audience was and I am not sure why she uses her concerts to pursue these views.
Anyway that was really our cue to move down towards the stage. Forsaking our chairs, we found some space to the left about 10 rows back and the atmosphere was different again. It was dark now and I sensed that maybe Chrissie was warming to her task. This was much more enjoyable. She got through some more classics with real enthusiasm and then the group left to warm applause and cheers.
An encore is inevitable but we got no less than three. Thin Line was in there. Brass in Pocket was brilliant. She danced across the stage, doing all the actions and encouraging the audience to join in with the arm movements. Stop Your Sobbing was equally well done and I think it was I'll Stand by You that they closed the show with. That shows off her voice to the full.

There is no doubt that the Pretenders have had a lot of practice but performing live is a big challenge - especially for some of the "manufactured groups" nowadays. The Pretenders produce a sound that is able to bring a tingle to your spine. There are certain rifts and chords that you immediately recognise and are stimulated by. The Pretenders music is riddled with them. Anyone that really likes music (pop, rock or otherwise) will know exactly what I mean.

And Chrissie Hynde? She must have one of the best voices in the industry. It seems as strong and rich now as it is on those 20-year-old records. Our entrance tickets cost us £15 (about $25) each. For that we got a performance of excellence from one of the great surviving rock bands. And surrounded by a fortification steeped in history dating back 800 years. It was the best value ever. If anyone has the chance to see this group in this kind of setting on the rest of their tour or in the future - take it. You won't regret it.

Two weeks later we were in the grounds of Sennowe Park in Norfolk doing it all again. Addicted already? Probably.

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