Concert Reviews

Stevie Nicks with The Pretenders at the Air Canada Centre

Photos by Dawn Hamilton

The full stadium seating is heavy with remembered youth. Much of the audience have seen at least one of the acts before, years ago, and have returned hoping to recapture that same experience. More than that, though, more than another run at seeing a favourite artist, there is an attempt by young and old to recapture a piece of lost time. The willingness to escape into something pure is at its height, and what could be more pure than getting swept up in a night of legendary talent?

The typical show set up is a lesser known opener followed by the main attraction. Tonight, the formula is different, showcasing two very different yet equally powerful and renowned acts. It’s a double bill the likes of which most don’t dare dream: Chrissie Hynde’s The Pretenders and miss scarf twirl herself, Stevie Nicks. First up is The Pretenders. Chrissie tells the crowd that she used to come to Toronto in her twenties and thought of it as “the big city”. Years later and she’s back again, thank god. I can’t speak to their past performances at their 70s at 80s peak but it’s hard to imagine it could get much better than what comes out on stage tonight. During the gentle ode “Hymn To Her” Chrissie croons into the microphone while the crowd raises their phone screens like a waving sea of lighters. The tenderness and love that comes across with every key sounds at once emotionally exhausting and effortless, and when the song ends, Chrissie cries out, “That one was for Stevie!” The classic “Back on the Chain Gang” has the band moving in sync, Chrissie moving to the music as though it’s in her blood, the band throwing out killer guitar and precision drumming. The audience on the floor has seats provided but most crowd in front of the stage, unable to remain still during such a show and opting instead to dance off the years. “I’ll Stand By You” was perhaps Hynde’s best showing of the night. The song could easy fall into cheesy, over emotional territory but Chrissie holds back just enough while still presenting all the drama and posing fans would hope from her. The performance doesn’t take away from the song; if anything, it reinforces its status as a classic ballad. The band plays a song new to this year, “Holy Commotion”, a take on religion and rock that remains true to the sound they’re known and loved for. Last but certainly not least, the entire room rises as one for “Brass In Pocket.” Chrissie is sultry, both 25 and 65, beckoning seductively in her Elvis t-shirt while we all scream back, “I’m special!” When the song ends, the band falls, arms far spread, into a deep bow, and they walk of stage to a standing ovation (a first in my experience with opening bands).

And then there she was. After a short intro by her band she emerged from behind a curtain and walked to the front, centre stage, a flowing black dress and of course classic shawl: Stevie Nicks. A little background on me: I’m not a big fan of seated venues. I’m all about the general admission tickets, waiting for hours outside the venue to be front and centre, craning my neck up to the face addressing the crowd behind. The reason I love that closeness is the feeling of connection you get with the person on stage, a feeling that’s hard to maintain from a distance. As with most stadium style venues the ACC has two large screens on either side of the stage, and while that helps, it doesn’t give me the human element I’m looking for. Until now. For nearly every moment of the show Stevie sang directly into camera in close up, her face speaking out of each screen, addressing us all directly. It gave me chills how personal it felt, and I often found myself drawn more to her eyes staring out from that projection than to the stage itself. Perhaps if the other performers hadn’t been very engaging my vision would have remained locked there for the entire night, but that was not the case. Her band for this tour consists of the old and the new, but what sticks is the deep connections she has to so many of her band mates, particularly Sharon Celani, the backup singer she met at a bar and has been working with ever since, and “Waddy” Watchel, her guitarist and friend since her pre-Fleetwood first album, Buckingham Nicks. There is a sense of ease and true enjoyment that could only come from the knowledge of such a long-standing support system right beside you, and it’s a joy to behold. Not to mention the talent: Celani and her fellow backup singer, standing in for Stevie’s sister in law Lori Nicks, are more than just decoration, adding weight and contrast against Stevie’s vocal force. As for Waddy, the man handles the guitar like it’s all he’s ever known. His solos would be a show stealer if the show wasn’t, well, Stevie Nicks. And man, is it her show.

She lets us know from the beginning that tonight’s show will be different. “I went back into the black gothic trunk of mysterious, wonderful things”, she says, and pulled out songs that haven’t been done on tour for one reason or another. From “If Anyone Falls” to “Wild Heart”, each is truly a treasure plucked from the past and given the gift of the live treatment. Her duo with Tom Petty, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”, she cites as “probably the reason we’re here today” before bringing Chrissie back out to sing with her to deafening applause. Afterwards, she remarks, “it’s my destiny to almost always be part of a duo.” While that may be true, her solo material is as strong as it ever was. “Gypsy” has her tasselled tambourine, which until now has been hanging on her arm, flying against her hand as she begins to twirl, a moment apart. “Stand Back” has everyone out of their seats, singing out as she smiles from screen and stage. This, like many songs of the night, comes with a story. “Stand Back”, she says, she wrote to Prince’s “Little Red Corvette”. When it came time to record she called Prince, told him and asked him to come listen. As she tells it, not only did he listen but played the guitar and keyboard for it before “disappearing in a purple haze.” A newer release played that night, “Starshine”, was written in Tom Petty’s basement. Stevie recalls that she went over so often to record that one day he asked, “So, are you moving in?” By far the most shocking revelation of the night, after giving a moving and dramatic performance to “Moonlight (A Vampire’s Dream)” draped in a fur stole she recounts that the second Twilight movie inspired the song and “was, in many ways, the reason I came back to making records.” We all owe Stephenie Meyer a debt of gratitude.

Nicks is very aware of her tendency towards storytelling; later in the night she apologizes, saying each time she tries to talk less without success. “If this hadn’t worked out for me I would’ve become a teacher,” she explains, “brought my music to class and made the kids listen to it…. And then,” she chuckles, “I would’ve been fired.” I doubt anyone in the audience that night was bothered by the stories. Each one seemed to bring her out more from Stevie Nicks, the icon, to Stevie Nicks, the person. After a moving rendition of “Bella Donna”, complete with original Bella Donna cape (“If you’re going to invest in something in this political world… silk chiffon.”), she remembers reviewers, “the people who tell us who we are,” discussing the possibility of her first solo album as a fluke until the success of Wild Heart proved them otherwise. Later on, she brings home the idea of independence and believing your own voice; “It’s not your life,” she begs us to tell those who seek to control us. “You don’t live here. It’s me.” And when she sings “Edge of Seventeen”, every inch of her spinning, moving, singing her heart out with timeless power, it’s undeniable that for a moment on that stage it’s only her, in control of her life, a wild heart like no one else.

About author

Associate Film Editor, Music writer, & Illustrator at Live in Limbo. Cemetery worker, student, overzealous media consumer. Will sell my soul for a bowl of guacamole.