The tone of a Hole show is entirely dependent upon Courtney Love's mood,
and from moment to moment it's anybody's guess what that is. In a flash, Love goes from needy
rock star baring all to gossip dishing on whoever's strayed into her radar to
withering, acid-tongued hipster berating you for
some infraction you had no knowledge of committing. She plays the punk
rock diva to invite adulation, and then scorns it as soon as it's offered up.
She provokes the hostility of the crowd to use it as an excuse for turning on
them. Hole has performed some of the most compelling and memorable
rock 'n' roll shows I've ever seen, and I wouldn't describe any of them as
fun. Love is the only performer capable of tying up my guts in knots in
sheer queasy anticipation of what she might do next.
There was plenty of antagonism
in the air before Hole took the stage of the
Boston Orpheum Theater Sunday night. The audience was delayed
getting into the hall while security performed searches and metal scans on
everyone entering. (Love received death threats before a show she played
here in the fall of 1994.) The band then made the crowd wait 70
minutes after the opening act, Imperial Teen, had finished its set. It
wasn't a friendly tone that was set by the opener, a lacerating "Credit in the
Straight World." And Love, who seems to have an antagonistic relationship
with Boston, didn't waste any time before going on a rap about Harvard
Musically, the show was remarkable. The last Hole shows I'd seen were both
in the fall of 1994, in the tumultuous and awful months after Kurt Cobain's
death and the release of "Live Through This." At those performances, the
music blended into everything else -- Love's monologues, her alternately
furious and distracted presence -- to create the impression of rock show as
confessional or as psychotherapy. The songs would knot up into rages of
sound only to peter out in a few strummed chords.
On Sunday, Love, guitarist Eric
Erlandson, bassist Melissa Auf der Mar and new drummer Samantha Maloney gave the
numbers from the underrated "Celebrity Skin"
a punch that both kept the
songs' radio-friendly sheen and added a few new incisors. Even the
digressions into other songs -- the "Malibu" that segued into snatches of
"All Tomorrow's Parties" and "Maggie's Farm," the surprise cover of "Get
Ready" on which Auf der Mar shared lead vocals -- had a tightness that was
very different from the sloppiness the band was prone to five years ago.
For many of the numbers, Love was content to leave guitar duties to
Erlandson, who kept to his own upstage space. Using a cordless mike, Love
roamed the stage, flirted with Auf der Mar, jumped out into the crowd,
even, in one nerve-racking moment, shinnied up a bank of speakers to
precariously walk the edges of the theater's private boxes and sing "Malibu"
to the audience members sitting there.
As always with Love, just when you thought you had a handle on the
mood, she changed it. Seemingly ready to engage the audience with "Celebrity
Skin's" "Awful," she veered into a bruising "Pretty on the Inside." And that
set the tone for the rest of the night, with the mood of the show alternately
celebratory and accusatory. On "Reasons to Be Beautiful" she delivered the
pointed rejection of survivor's guilt (and of Neil Young's famous maxim),
"It's better to rise than fade away," with a dismissive gesture directed at the
audience, a gesture that seemed to indicate impatience at anyone still buying
the romance of rock 'n' roll burnout. The banter took suddenly nasty turns.
Taking off a diaphanous wrap she was wearing over a blue loincloth
miniskirt, Love offered it to someone in the crowd only to tear them down
with "I found it in the trash" after they accepted it. And she didn't hesitate
to open old wounds, addressing the rumors about her various Svengalis by
announcing at one point, "As you know, we're a cover band, and we don't
write anything we play." Given moments like that, it was hard to get swept
away by the music; you were too wary of how the whole show could turn on
All of which made the last half-hour nearly impossible to read. Less than an
hour into the set, the band began playing "Boys on the Radio." Once again,
Love jumped into the crowd, only this time returning to the stage with
20 or so young girls. Expecting to be able to dance, the girls were instead
ordered by security to sit in front of the drum riser, and then left there as the
band finished the number and apparently the set. But the night wasn't over.
After nearly 10 minutes, Hole returned and Love asked, "Does anybody else
want to sit up here?" What followed was as close to pandemonium as
anything I've ever witnessed at a rock show. Girls (the crowd was perhaps
65 percent female) and a few boys ("No big jocks!" Love had warned) jumped up
on the stage or were pulled up by Love until there were probably in excess of
100 fans swamping the stage and the band. From where I was standing, in the balcony,
it was impossible to tell where the stage left off and
the front rows began. At first, it was impossible to escape the feeling that
these kids (and most of them were kids) were being used as props, present
for Love's pleasure, chosen to pay court. Especially when a few tried to stand
up and she commanded, "Sit!" ("Is she gathering them for a human
sacrifice?" my wife asked me.) But Love knew that she was walking a fine
line and that if she didn't establish some control at the start, the whole thing
could have turned ugly (as it did for one enthusiastic boy who leapt down
onstage from a side box and was immediately grabbed by security and
manhandled into the wings).
Amazingly, as the stage became more and more crowded, the whole crazy spectacle became sweeter.
Love picked one girl to share lead vocals on "I Think That I Would Die," allowed kids to
wrap their arms around her behind (even if she did throw them off after a
minute), even gave away her guitar to someone who couldn't make it up
onstage. (At the back of the stage, drummer Maloney was spraying the sweaty
crowd with water and passing out drumsticks.) "This is funner than a
show," Love smirked mischievously at one point in a way that told you she
was relishing the nightmare she was causing for security. Even her
admonitions to the crowd to behave itself ("If you aren't good, I'm gonna
expel you from rock 'n' roll high school") took on the tone of
someone making a joke about her own bossiness. By the time confetti
was falling, the whole thing had taken on the feel of a crazed prom. After it
was all over and kids were making their way off the stage, a friend said to
me, "The high schools are gonna be buzzing tomorrow." You could already
hear it on the way out of the theater ("I touched her!" enthused one kid, who
was immediately corrected by her friend: "No she touched
you"). "It's your party ... let's start a riot," Love sang on "Awful."
The nerve-racking exhilaration of this show came close to giving us both.