FAYETTEVILLE — Pat Benatar is a hard-rocking vocal powerhouse whose songs served as anthems for angsty teenagers in the 1980s. Those youngsters are all grown up, and other generations have grown to love her too. They were all in the house Sunday night for her concert at the Walton Arts Center.
Twice slated to play the Arkansas Music Pavilion in recent years, Benatar and her band finally made it to Fayetteville to play at the arts center. A torrential rain forced the band to forego that first gig, while damage to the pavilion tent caused the second deferment.
But Sunday’s performance was totally worth the wait.
This wasn’t Benatar’s first time in Fayetteville. She played in the late 1980s, on a bill with Rhythm Corps and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts at Barnhill Arena. On this visit to town, Benatar’s band was in the seventh week of a nine-week leg of their current tour with Loverboy and Journey.
They played an energetic show, fulfilling the crowd’s expectations of hearing her biggest hits, the lyrics and tunes committed to their collective memory. Though it might have lost some of its youthful vibrancy, Benatar’s voice is still powerful, sometimes gravelly and sometimes just lovely. She avoided the highest notes, but improvised expertly. And, her stamina is still in tact.
Especially fun was the interplay between Benatar and her lead guitarist for 34 years (and husband of 30 years), Neil Giraldo. He called her Patricia. She called him by his nickname, Spyder.
Benatar, who won four consecutive Grammy awards for Best Female Rock Performance from 1980 to 1983, admitted they’d been around for a while. Not only was Benatar on heavy rotation among music video in the early days of MTV, her song “You Better Run” was the second video played on the channel when it debuted in 1981.
Giraldo often backed up Benatar on vocals. But his guitar playing blew away the crowd. He was simply fantastic — often, fast and furious — particularly on “River of Love,” and offered a great guitar riff in “Everybody Lay Down.” He also regularly flicked guitar picks into the crowd to eager fans. The band was rounded out by Mick Mahan on bass and background vocals and Chris Ralles on drums.
Seventy-five minutes in, Benatar and Giraldo took a rest on two stools at the front of the stage. “This is the part of the show where we sit down because we’re old,” she said. (He’s 56, she’s 59.)
But he only sat there long enough to tell the story about how they recorded their first album, In the Heat of the Night, in 1979. And Benatar said she imagined many in the crowd had sung the next song on a karaoke night, or at least while wailing into a hairbrush in front of a mirror at home. Then, Giraldo went to the piano and played a lovely introduction to “We Belong,” which the crowd did, indeed, love as much as Benatar said they would.
She also told the background of a song written in 1980, after she read a New York Times series about child abuse in this country. She was moved to write scraps of lyrics with Roger Capps, their original bass player. They gave them to Giraldo, who wrote the song “Hell is For Children.” Benatar performed this emotional slow rock tune, eventually wiping tears from her face, before launching into the ending with beautiful, aggressive screams.
The crowd jumped to their feet for “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” which features one of the most recognizable guitar solos from Giraldo. She got sections of the crowd to sing along with the chorus. The audience remained standing as the band went straight into “Love is a Battlefield,” to which the crowd also sang along. Benatar even sang the pretty part at the end that usually gets cut off by radio disc jockeys.
They ended the show after 45 minutes, but returned for a generous three-song encore — with Benatar and Giraldo first shaking hands with everyone in the front row. For “Let’s Stay Together,” Giraldo took a break from guitar to pound the ivories on the piano.
Benatar saved “Heartbreaker” — her first hit — for last, and did a fabulous job. But, perhaps as a nod to Johnny Cash in his home state, she subtly switched into an interlude of “Ring of Fire,” which she and her husband sang as a duet. Then, she easily slipped back into “Heartbreaker” to finish out the show, and Giraldo wowed everyone with more examples of his guitar prowess.