As we wander into the stalls, through one of the mighty Albert’s many doors, we spot a lofty teen whose military jacket is carefully hand-stitched with patches (Dead Kennedys, Misfits, The Clash): it’s the most punk thing we’ve seen since pausing to contemplate some pre-gig olives (Kalamata, pitted) and a bottle of mineral water (own-brand, sparkling).
But any suggestion that The Pretenders’ spark might be dulled by these august, rarefied surroundings is quickly dismissed as Chrissie Hynde – starry-trousered, in Regency monochrome – et al thunder into Alone, the title track of a Pretenders album which nearly wasn’t, starting off as a follow up to Hynde’s solo Stockholm, and recorded with Black Keys man, and fellow Ohioan, Dan Auerbach’s band, rather than her own. Nevertheless, it’s a perfect fit here, swaggering and sanguine about the joys of independent living (“Nobody tells me I can’t … No one to say ‘You’re doing it wrong’… I’m where I belong, alone”). But a slightly off sound mix means Ricky Peterson’s thumping piano very nearly drowns out Hynde’s half-spoken vocal, and a raw, garage-rocking Gotta Wait, also lifted from Alone, is similarly afflicted.
By Message Of Love, stage lights on full beam, any such issues are dealt with, and the seated crowd are up on their feet. It’s what they came for, after all, and the Pretenders deliver for the most part, barrelling through The Hits and early album tracks. Only Down The Wrong Way – a Hynde solo track that’s more middle of the road than, er, Middle Of The Road – and the cod-reggae lilt of Private Life (as covered by Her Grace of Jones), are less than spectacular, the latter suffering from a surfeit of solos by guitarist James Walbourne (“all the way from Muswell Hill”, Hynde announces).
Elsewhere, Walbourne is terrific: jangling crisply through Back On The Chain Gang, Talk Of The Town and Brass In Pocket, cutting trebly, scything slashes through the brittle New Wave of Mystery Achievement and Up The Neck, and going long on the hurtling, countrified rockabilly of Thumbelina. Drummer Martin Chambers is on excellent form too, clearly enjoying himself. He spars gently with Hynde when she says they’ve been playing together for 37 years (“39! – feels longer though!”), asks when he’s getting his own dressing room (“save that for the solo album”, Hynde snaps), and whips out a trombone before the drum solo that precedes Middle Of The Road.
It’s a blistering set, but the gentler moments are just as enthralling. There’s Let’s Get Lost, sadly without an appearance by Neil Tennant, who guests on the single, and the inevitable I’ll Stand By You. Hymn To Her, though, is the pick. Shorn of the slightly cloying production sheen of the mid-’80s Get Close, it’s minimal, but devastating. When Hynde briefly fluffs the beginning of the second verse, there’s an awkward moment. But it’s quickly punctured by Hynde. “Don’t make me laugh!”, she giggles, before coming back in, her voice as singular and powerful as ever. Tonight might be the first time the band have played the Hall, and Hynde is suitably awed, but the sense of occasion never quite takes over: they’re fierce, unapologetically melodic, and fun.