Hole at SXSW: Courtney Love offers one-liners worthy of the Comedy Store
The sun went behind a cloud Friday afternoon at the Spin magazine party at Stubb's, just as Courtney Love claimed the stage to introduce American fans to the new incarnation of her band, Hole. Comedian Margaret Cho had just announced the rock star's arrival with the kind of burning nostalgia female rock fans of a certain age (especially) could feel in their gut.
"When I saw Hole in the '90s," Cho said, "everything changed. I stopped wearing underwear." It was a joke, but no lie. Better known as a tabloid disaster and a brilliant, outre pugilist taking on all comers -- journalists, other celebrities, sometimes her own friends and family -- Love was also once the artist whose music expressed unacceptable female rage and hunger, and in doing so, motivated many young women to see and risk new things.
Could she do it again? Would she even stay standing? The momentary clouds, which cleared up after a few songs, seemed like a sign: Love is back, and even the weather must bow to her presence.
But weather isn't really a symbol of anything. And Hole, with only its front-woman remaining from the lineup that made some of the best rock of the '90s, would have to make the case for its relevance to older fans disillusioned by the public meltdowns and other problems that have damaged Love's legacy.
She certainly brought the mouth that helped make her notorious. Most of Love's between-song banter was just as profane as the chorus of her best new song, "Samantha," whose refrain bluntly describes what she might call "hate sex": the erotic connections are meant to wield power, not love. At her best, by singing (and howling and growling) about these dark areas of human interaction within a powerful hard rock framework that borrows from myth-obsessed goth and metal, and the spookier side of classic radio rock, Love turns her highly individualistic suffering emblematic, a broken window into the feminine condition.
Sometimes, though, that bigger picture narrows in Love's hands. Hole's show at Stubb's was a mixed affair, with some songs pushing into that deeper space, and others remaining fairly inert. One new song sounded very much like the 1980s-style metal that Love wants to blast apart and remake, but it didn't go far enough. A couple of others were stymied by stolid rhythms and hookless choruses. It's possible that this material may translate better in recordings -- Love's voice, always croaky, didn't show a lot of range at Stubb's -- but next to older songs Hole performed, like an intense "Violet" and a defiant "Miss World," the fresh material seemed tentative.
Love didn't, though. Peppering the set with one-liners worthy of the Comedy Store, Love argued vociferously for her new collaborators (Hole co-founder Eric Erlandson initially objected to Love's continued use of the band's name), made fun of Poison singer and hair metal avatar Bret Michaels, and insisted that her new material would soon overtake the radio. It was fun to witness her hurling attitude and reassuring that she didn't get so entangled that she collapsed.
As for that new lineup: It's competent, and occasionally packs a wallop. But the rhythm section of Shawn Dailey and Stu Fischer reined in the sound so it rarely hit that melting point that once made Hole a somewhat frightening but thrilling live act. The guitarist Micko Larkin, Love's current primary collaborator, proved a decent player versed in the shaggier side of heavy rock (a tradition the group traced to its source by briefly covering "Sympathy For the Devil" by the Rolling Stones). Another guitarist, whom Love called "invisible Dave," was mostly there to double her own admittedly shaky rhythm parts.
Some satisfaction came simply from seeing Love nearly back in her glory, egging on the crowd and threatening to stage dive. ("I'm far too elderly," the 45-year-old singer said when she didn't.) Love may be less than appealing as gossip fodder or as a self-appointed pundit specializing in the subject of herself, but as a game-changer in rock, who took on the big boys and almost won, she makes you root for her survival.
Before the set, Spin editor Doug Brod commented, "Everyone is asking me, is she gonna show up? Is she gonna be on point? She's committed to this; she knows what this means and she is going to do it." He added, "everyone is pulling for her." That hasn't always been the case for Courtney Love, and at Stubb's she seemed to appreciate it. Whether she'll take this comeback any further is now up to her.
-- Ann Powers
Photo: Courtney Love. Credit: Jack Plunkett