Johnette Napolitano managed to make the snug little Hotel Cafe seem even more intimate than it already is; her one-hour set on Thursday felt less like a concert than an impromptu session in someone’s living room.
Playing a homecoming show in front of an audience of friends and longtime fans, the former Concrete Blonde singer — often accompanied by her own guitar and a bottle of red wine — pulled out a loose collection of material connected only by her emotional commitment and searing vocals. At times her vocals were so unguarded and raw, it was as if Janis Joplin was reincarnated as a singer-songwriter.
From the start it was obvious that Napolitano was working without a setlist: She began the show with a version of Leon Russell’s “Superstar” that was as far from Karen Carpenter as could be imagined (and only performed because Brian Mansell, her webmaster and Russell’s guitar player, was in the aud).
The rest of the evening was just as capricious and compelling. Nothing fazed her — not the sirens that could be heard outside the club’s storefront stage, nor the fact that Concrete Blonde’s Gabriel Ramirez, who joined her on drums, didn’t show up until the third song. (He was caught in the traffic snarl caused by road work on Hollywood Boulevard).
She pulled a friend up onstage to join her in an appropriately ragged cover of Love’s “Signed D.C.,” dedicated Concrete Blonde’s languorous “Mexican Mood” to friends, loped through a spooky “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and didn’t play a song from her fine new album, “Scarred,” until some 40 minutes into the show.
No matter what she sang, Napolitano held back nothing emotionally. By the evening’s final song, Concrete Blonde’s bitterly elegiac “Tomorrow, Wendy,” she was wrung out, repeating the song’s refrain “Tomorrow Wendy’s going to die,” replacing “Wendy” with “American soldiers” and “Iraqi children” with more and more force until she broke down and had to be led off the stage.