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REVIEW: Classic rocker Pat Benatar roars louder ‘Unplugged’

Classic rocker Pat Benatar was the second artist and first woman to have a video aired on the wildly popular 1980s cable network MTV, but she never performed for its “Unplugged” live concert series.

So now the powerhouse singer is staging her own version of Unplugged in concert halls around the country.

Benatar and her husband, Neil Giraldo, a longtime collaborator, delivered an intimate but rousing, mostly acoustic, performance for a crowd of about 1,000 people at Duluth Symphony Hall Sunday. The pair shared songs, stories and provided a charming look into their 39-year relationship during the 90-minute, 15-song show.

“We’re going to give you some back story to the songs we’ve written and recorded over the years,” Giraldo said. “Because I think learning about where songs came from is fun.”

“Some of the songs you all know, some songs you might know, and some you may have never heard before,” said Benatar, who promised to play some of her “Holy 14,” the biggest hits of her Grammy-winning career.

Throughout the night, Benatar performed seated on a stool with Giraldo standing nearby playing acoustic guitar. A dozen glowing lights that looked like flickering white candles provided the only set decoration in front of a black curtain.

The pair traded lines on “All Fired Up,” and Benatar launched her still-stunning soprano on “We Live For Love” to open the performance. Then the hits started rolling in like 10-foot waves on Park Point.

“We Belong” used pre-recorded drums and synthesizers that overwhelmed the song and felt out of place, but this was the only misstep of the night.

If the show would have been outside, the Aerial Lift Bridge operator might have picked up a false signal when Benatar belted the chorus to “You Better Run.” Her voice is as strong and clear as when the song first hit the charts in 1980.

During “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” a top 10 smash, the house lights came up, Benatar jumped to her feet and led the audience in a chorus sing-along. Giraldo tossed guitar picks to the front rows.

The youth empowerment anthem “Love is a Battlefield” somehow sounded bigger and more important stripped down on a churning acoustic guitar. The song earned a huge ovation that ended the main set.

Aside from the music, the couple told stories about the birth of their first daughter, how they watched their first video on MTV at a fleabag motel in Oklahoma and that rhythm and blues legend Bo Diddley inspired their songwriting. And it was quaint to hear Benatar call Giraldo by his nickname “Spyder” while he called her “Patricia.”

Giraldo proved to be a good funny man, too. He joked about playing the song “The Pusher” for his grade-school classmates and railed against Facebook culture.

The night ended with the newly written song “Shine.” Benatar said she was inspired by the Women’s March on Washington. “If you lift up one group, you lift up all groups,” she said. “Shine is for all my sisters out there.”

The roaring hit “Heartbreaker,” with the Johnny Cash classic “Ring of Fire” jammed in the middle, closed the show to a standing ovation.

Unplugged never sounded so good.

Mark Nicklawske reviews music and theater for the News Tribune.

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