Steve Snyder has seen VH1’s Decade of Rock Live: The Pretenders

Reviewed by Steven Snyder

It’s always a precarious thing – reviewing television shows made essentially as tributes, designed for the sole purpose of giving fans a chance to celebrate.

I love the late, great director Stanley Kubrick, and no doubt just about any channel could make just about any program about him, and I’d be happy as a clam.

In this regard, the latest chapter of VH1 Classic’s Decades of Rock Live series, featuring The Pretenders, is a rousing success. It gets Chrissie Hynde back up on stage, bathes her in the glow of wall-sized, neon displays and hands her a guitar to rock with.

And for the first, two-song set of this two-hour love-fest, all is right in the world of rock and roll – icon up front, screaming crowd below, drummer pounding away.

But what becomes increasingly curious, and unmistakable, about this VH1 special is how far it reaches to impress. This doesn’t just want to be a tribute, but multiple tributes all in one, squeezed and packaged together.

Welcomed up on stage with Hynde are Iggy Pop, Shirley Manson (of Garbage), Kings ofLeon and – of all groups to rub against the gritty sensibilities of the Pretenders – Incubus. They play on Pretenders songs, Hynde has her chance to accompany them on their more popular title and suddenly the tribute morphs into a momentary jam session.

Hynde mellows to fit in to the popular, but restrained, Incubus hit “Drive,” she teams up with Iggy Pop on “Fools Must Die” and she lets Shirley Manson in on “I’m Only Happy When It Rains.” As far as guest acts go, Manson seems the most appropriately in awe of the career Hynde has built. The younger star is clearly excited to be on the stage with her idol, and Hynde returns the love.

Itermittently, the concert pauses for a backstage chat, as Hynde recalls the earliest days of her career and her desire simply to “get out of Akron.” She talks of not being a perfect guitar player – but also her belief that the joy of punk is to be found in the fact that perfection is avoided. All you need is a few chords, Hynde says, and the desire to play the hell out of the imperfection.

It’s this passionate imperfection that she says she hears in Kings of Leon, a group she says sounds like a blast of fresh air in the midst of the noise that is now clogging the airwaves. And it’s this grittiness which opens the concert, as Hynde stands tall, grabs the guitar and works the stage like she was born there.

But really, what feels askew in this concert – for not-quite-Pretenders-fanatics, that is, like myself – is that the whole thing’s a little too clean and polished. The songs feel well rehearsed, the guest appearances feel less about love for Pretenders music (Manson excluded) than about self-promotion. Even the backstage conversations feel a bit tired and meandering – perfectly polite and completely adequate, but hardly revelatory or enthusiastic

Even for die-hard Prentender fans – who will surely still love seeing their favorite girl up on stage, singing their favorite tunes – something about all these other musicians feels distracting. If this really is going to be a love-fest, don’t muddy the waters with a sudden Incubus tune.

Ultimately it’s three tributes in one – a concert full of hits, a fireside chat full of pleasntries and a mix tape full of both the old the new. Sadly, in rushing to be all three, Decades of Rock, Pretenders edition, doesn’t have enough time to do just one right. In industry terms, this is all a way of saying that ratings will sink at the breaks.