courtesy of PiL.
“Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” – rumored FDR quote about Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza García.*
I couldn’t help but think of this quote as John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten aka “Uncle John” took the stage at the 9:30 Club on Wednesday night. Lydon is one of the ultimate love/hate figures in music history. For every brilliant stroke like the Sex Pistol’s ‘Bodies’ or PiL’s ‘Rise’ there is an equally hypocritical public statement or ticket price outrage to offend anew. So I was not very surprised when a lot of professed fans of Public Image Ltd balked at attending Wednesday night’s concert. After all it was over-priced and the quality of a reformed (not reunited) PiL was a huge question mark. Lydon has a lot of audacity expecting sold-out crowds 18 years after the band’s last performance or album, especially after the radically mixed reviews received for the Sex Pistols reunion tours of the late-90’s and mid-00’s. And yet there I stood with a club full of people anxiously waiting for Lydon to challenge us with his noisy, confrontational, anti-pop onslaught. As I stared at the giant PiL banner behind the stage and the growing crowd I thought, John Lydon is a son of a bitch, but (if you love his music) he’s our son of a bitch.
For me, with regard to bands, front-men, legends, and their egos, it boils down to music first, personality second. I worship the Sex Pistols and think that Public Image Ltd. was one of the most inspired and brilliant career/style shifts in music history. Lydon’s ego aside, I was on-board for this show from the get-go. My two-song preview of PiL at the Coachella Music Festival left me confident that Public Image Ltd.’s 9:30 Club show was going to be something special. I had no clue just how special this show would turn out to be.
courtesy of fizzygeek.
Wednesday night’s Public Image Ltd. concert was a gloriously challenging, thematically intense, rhythmically brilliant celebration of sonic weirdness and lyrical genius. The current line-up of PiL includes late-80’s members Lu Edmunds (on guitars and other weird guitar-like instruments) and Bruce Smith (on drums and trashcan), with new member Scott Firth (on bass and keyboards). This was one tight unit of musicians dishing out a dizzying array of tempo changes, weird noises, sonic freak-outs, and extended versions of PiL classics. The band sounded fantastic! Their strange and primal delivery of each re-arranged tune lent just the right amount of post-punk challenge and primitive rhythm to dazzle the crowd through-out the extra long set.
Public Image Ltd. played sans opening act and took that earlier time to play an extra-long set of music that lasted for over two-hours. The PiL catalog is so stylistically varied that there was never a lull in the concert’s energy or ability to captivate. The set list was all re-arranged classics; each song going into 6 to 8 minute extended versions. The best extension being the awesome performance of ‘Flowers of Romance’, opening with powerful drums and singing for three or four minutes before the guitar and bass dropped like a sound bomb to launch the traditionally 3-minute track into a discordant monster jam.
John Lydon performed like a man possessed. His passionate singing, guttural grunts, and banshee howls were the true highlight of the evening. There was no trace of the cash-in, foot-in-the-mouth son of a bitch ego Lydon is infamous for. As a performer on Wednesday night he came across as a truly passionate, revitalized individual. At times his performance was almost frightening as he unleashed his lyrical fury at a variety of political targets. During ‘Death Disco’ a halo of sickly yellow light back-lit Lydon’s pointy-haired head making him look like some kind of sulfur-pit emergent demon. This show was the first time I have seen Lydon perform a full concert and I have to say that I feel I have finally seen one of the great front-men of all time. Whatever stages he went through towards the end of “PiL phase two”, those growing pains are over. Wednesday night’s vocal performance was the stuff of legend.
courtesy of fizzygeek.
Not to say Lydon didn’t have his fair share of fun with the crowd. He goaded them into dancing by yelling “let me know you’re here!”, and later telling them “you don’t have to stand around like lamp posts all night.” Two thirds of the way through this epic set Lydon led the crowd through a painful sing along called ‘Sitting the Sun(?)’. The DC crowd lived up to its horrible sing along reputation by butchering it. Lydon and the band were committed to the idea though and dutifully played through the song while the crowd struggled to learn the words. Watching and listening from the balcony, this sounded awful and looked like a giant clusterfuck, but the depraved look on Lydon’s face cued that this was all part of the challenge of his music. By the end of the song, the crowd got the chorus right, but Lydon was already moving on. Politics of course played a huge part of Lydon’s stage banter and a pro-Obama, anti-Tea Party rant in the middle of ‘Warrior’ was the highlight on that front; essentially asking America to give Obama time to fix the years of Bush II damage and instructing us with “regardless of your politics…do not let a chimpanzee party divide you.”
Normally I prefer my music and politics separate but with some bands it is just impossible to enjoy a show unless you embrace it. Going into a show fronted by Johnny Rotten, you know you’re going to one of those shows. Once Lydon got started down the politics path he locked-on teeth like a pitbull. After slamming Arizona’s new immigration law Lydon and the band launched into a demonic version of ‘Bags’, a song whose vitriol was matched only by the scathing attack of ‘Religion’ a few songs later.
courtesy of Trasnformer1972.
If there was a weak point to this show it was when PiL performed crowd-favorite ‘Disappointed’. I just never really liked this song and the live version did very little for me. I thought Lydon and the band sounded a little bored playing it too. The crowd went nuts though, successfully singing along en masse. The entire evening was a perfect blend of PiL’s post-punk challenges and mutant-pop that even when they hit on a song that wasn’t your cup of tea, you were soon right back into it with another favorite.
The show closed out very strong with an encore of ‘Public Image’, ‘Rise’, and (much to my surprise) an incredible version of ‘Open Up’.** It was during this three song stretch that I realized how special this concert was. Lydon could have easily resurrected Public Image Ltd., charged the same inflated amount, and played us all for suckers by mailing his performance in. Instead he put together a super-tight band and came out of the gate with fists flying, never letting up on the intensity or talent during this marathon session of incredible music.
* we music writers have to use our History degrees somewhere.
** isn’t ‘Open Up’ technically a Leftfield song? Either way, I was not expecting to hear it and was very pleasantly surprised at the killer live version they played.