Artist: The Pretenders (opener), Stevie Nicks (headliner)
Venue: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
Mileage: 105

I actually remember the very first time I heard “Rhiannon” on the radio. It was 1976, and I was fourteen. That VOICE! I was, well, haunted. I had to find out who it was. Over the next few months or so I bought the “Fleetwood Mac” album, saw them on the Midnight Special and fell head over heels in love, found a copy of the (obscure even then) “Buckingham Nicks” album (“Frozen Love” blew my mind especially). I started wearing a long satin scarf and longed for a pair of stacked-heel boots like Stevie Nicks wore in a photo I had tacked to my wall.

I remember, too, when Stevie’s first solo album, “Bella Donna,” came out and I was enchanted all over again. I loved that she was graceful, witchy, dreamlike – and that she also rocked HARD. Oddly enough, I’m not sure it really registered until years later that Roy Bittan, E Street Band pianist, was all over that album. And so was Waddy Wachtel, who’d played on “Buckingham Nicks” as well as with tons of other musicians I listened to back then.

I don’t have as clear a memory of the very first time I heard the Pretenders, but I picked up on them not long after their first album came out. I wasn’t necessarily a huge punk or new wave fan in general (though I loved Patti Smith), but something about the smart toughness of the songs, the quirky and occasionally indecipherable lyrics, and above all, THAT VOICE snagged my ears and brain and would not let go. Back then, even if they rocked pretty hard, most women in music tended towards a glamorous presentation – Stevie Nicks, Heart, Pat Benatar – but Chrissie Hynde was different. She wasn’t trying to be one of the boys, exactly, but she wasn’t trying to be delicate and pretty, either. As a freshman in college, wrestling with issues of identity and gender and feminism and self-as-performance, I loved that. In fact, if you’d suggested to me then that my own identity as a woman fell somewhere in between Stevie Nicks and Chrissie Hynde, I probably would have agreed.

Over the years I’ve spent time listening to both Stevie and Chrissie, fallen away from their newer work for a number of years, was aware that both had had their ups and downs (the Pretenders losing band members to drugs, Nicks having her own drug issues, etc.) but never stopped admiring either of them. But, weirdly enough, I’d never managed to see either of them live. I almost managed to catch Fleetwood Mac a couple years ago when they came through Indianapolis, but chickened out on the high ticket prices (and have been kicking myself ever since – always go to the show, dammit).

So when Stevie Nicks’ “24 Karat Gold” tour, with the Pretenders opening, got extended I was so excited to see an Indianapolis date. I’d been paying attention to the tour but hadn’t been able to work out a show I could travel for. Indy? Yeah. I can do that.

I hit the presale and ended up with a seat on the floor. Since it was section F3 row 1, silly me, I thought it was the front row of the back section on the floor and I’d have a nice wide aisle in front of me – which, when you’re 5 foot 1, makes it a lot easier to see. When I arrived at the arena, they had the sections broken in really random places, so I was actually in the middle of the section; section F2 row 16 was six inches in front of my chair. So my “I should be able to see pretty well” experience – which I remembered from being in the front row of the back floor section for Paul McCartney – turned into “I can see if I stand on tiptoe and crane my neck and bob & weave back & forth as people’s heads block my line of sight.” Thank goodness, I didn’t end up with a super tall dude in front of me, at least.

The Pretenders on stage
The Pretenders

I’d heard that the Pretenders had cancelled their last several shows due to Chrissie Hynde having a nasty cold & losing her voice, so I was very relieved when I heard that they were definitely playing in Indy. Compared to a few setlists pre-illness, we got a slightly shorter set, and Chrissie didn’t sing “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” with Stevie during her set as she had been earlier in the tour – drat, I did want to see that. And there were moments when you could tell Chrissie had to work hard and fight a bit with her voice – but it was still THAT VOICE, and she sounded great, and she was SO badass and seemed really happy to be there. The band (including original drummer Martin Chambers) rocked hard, played well, and had great energy. Sure, there were songs I would’ve loved to have heard (“Kid,” “Precious,” “Private Life”) but to hear “Stop Your Sobbing” live, after all these years? And to have the singer and the band perform with commitment and belief, not feeling at all like an “oldies” group or whatever? Pretty, pretty great. I was very happy.

And finally, Stevie Nicks! I knew this tour was promoting her “24 Karat Gold: Songs from the Vault” album, which compiles a bunch of songs that never made it onto albums. Or, as she calls it, “the gothic trunk of lost songs.” I bought that album and listened to it a couple of times before the show, but I knew that there’d be a good chunk of less-familiar songs in the setlist, and knew to be okay with that. She took time to tell stories about most of the songs, familiar and less-familiar, and that made it all perfect. (Some of the folks in the audience were annoyed with the amount of talking, but I loved the stories. I’m sure they are word for word the same at every stop on the tour, but they felt fresh, they didn’t feel like she was bored with them in any way.)

Stevie Nicks & band, with a photo of Stevie & Prince projected on the rear screen
Stevie Nicks – Stevie & Prince on rear screen

The visuals of the show were, of course, gorgeous; visual presentation has always been a huge part of Stevie’s art. The big screen behind the stage was used to good effect, a little something different for every song, usually including video snippets or animation. “Edge of Seventeen” featured images of trees – and photos of Prince drifting across the screen occasionally. She also dedicated “Moonlight (A Vampire’s Dream)” to Prince, saying that she doesn’t always dedicate that song to him but she does when she feels like she needs his presence beside her.

In fact, several of Stevie’s stories prominently featured Prince. I guess I didn’t realize they were fairly good friends. I knew she’d written “Stand Back” to the “Little Red Corvette” synthesizer riff (and got his permission, and he played the riff on her album, uncredited) but she told the whole story of how she called him up: “Hello, Prince? This is Stevie Nicks.” “Hello, Stevie Nicks. This is Prince.” –and he showed up twenty minutes later in his purple Camaro, dressed to the nines in purple velvet. Can’t you just picture it?

Other stories started with statements like, “I wrote this song in Tom Petty’s basement” (“Starshine”). She’s such a huge Petty & Heartbreakers fan! In fact, when she started working on her first solo album, she just wanted to bring in that whole band – when that clearly wasn’t going to happen, she used his producer at the time, Jimmy Iovine (with whom she ended up in a romantic relationship for a while). I guess a lot of her stories could have felt name-droppish, but come on, it’s STEVIE NICKS. She can totally get away with it.

The great guitarist Waddy Wachtel, who’s been a friend and collaborator since the “Buckingham Nicks” album, is in her current band – and he still sounds fantastic. And her background vocalists are the same two who’ve been with her since her first solo album. I love it when musicians have worked together for years and years and years. It makes things really special somehow.

More than anything, the show was graceful. Stevie is the rare artist who can rock your face off while remaining utterly elegant. True, she twirls gently now rather than going into total whirling-dervish mode. And she’s reworked some of the songs to avoid the super high notes; her voice is mellower now but still rich and strong. She seems happy, centered, and so very much herself. I just wanted to sit and listen to her all night, storytelling and singing.

Setlist highlights for me? “Gypsy,” the “Wild Heart/Bella Donna” pairing, “Crying in the Night” (from the “Buckingham Nicks” album, which I really did play ALL the time in high school, SO amazing to hear a little of that music performed now), “Gold Dust Woman” (the absolute tour de force of the night and everything I could have wanted it to be), and the show-closing “Landslide” preceding by a very sweet (and lengthy) story about its genesis. I can picture young Stevie now, sitting on the floor in a friend’s humongous house, alone, looking out at the mountains, wondering where her life was going, writing that song. And I love the layers of youth & age in the song, the patina it’s taken on over the years.

Quibbles? Sure, I would’ve loved to have heard “Dreams” (which was “my song” for a good while in my youth), and “Rhiannon” was maybe a bit perfunctory (you can’t blame her for being a little burned out on the song while recognizing that dropping it from the setlist would piss off a good part of her audience). But it was a gorgeous show, one that felt generous even though it wasn’t any longer than average. I hear a few of those songs differently now, and I feel like I learned a little something about songs I’ve loved for more than half my life. And that’s a beautiful gift to be given.

After I walked out of the arena, I realized I’d left my gray hoodie behind on my seat. (When I left, I was in such a blissed-out space that I didn’t even think to turn around and check behind me for the jacket.) I could have gone back in to look for it, or I could have called the arena the next morning and asked if they had it. But… the more I thought about it, the more it actually felt kind of right to have lost it. It was a cheap gray hoodie that actually didn’t fit me that well – the sort of thing you bring to a show when you don’t want to be upset if somebody dumps beer on it – and I bet I can find one I like better for three bucks at Goodwill. And I kind of like that I left a little bit of myself behind in that arena, where a little bit of magic happened.

Venue Tips:

  • Eh. It’s an arena. It’s built for basketball, not for concerts. The acoustics in the upper sections are usually crap, so try to sit on the floor (where the sound was actually very very good for this show; I could understand every word Stevie spoke or sang, except when the young ladies sitting next to me were conversing loudly… sigh) or in the lower sections.
  • I hadn’t eaten a proper dinner, just some snacky things from a convenience store on the drive up to Indy. So I was pretty happy to spot a smoothie stand in the concourse. Overpriced? Sure. But a nice smoothie is often my go-to “meal” in an airport, and I had one for similar reasons before the show. I’d awakened that morning with an absolutely killer headache, which didn’t completely fade until sometime during the show (yes, loud music cures my headaches, shut up), so I wasn’t really up for beer. It was a pretty good smoothie, too.

Next up: Pipa virtuoso Wu Man, March 31