“This is a fucking amazing band,” says John Lydon of his bandmates in Public Image Ltd., or PiL, toward the end of Monday’s show.
Well, yes, they are actually, so let’s take a quick look at them before we talk about Lydon himself and the Monday night concert.
Drawn largely from a PiL lineup in the late 1980s, the modern incarnation of the band plays funky post-punk. They are well coordinated as a unit in a way few bands are and they sound great. Drummer Bruce Smith thunders and snaps through the show. New guy Scott Firth on bass is a key ingredient in the consistency of the post-punk sound. And guitarist Lu Edmonds? On one song, the man is playing a saz, a kind of long-necked lute. The next, he’s on a big guitar. Before you know it, he’s fiddling (literally) with a banjo.
And the three bandmates provide a key part of a pattern to many PiL songs vocally — if PiL can be said to have any sort of pattern. They occasionally sing a repeating chant, usually consisting of a song’s title or subtitle, building a harmonious chorus as a backdrop to Lydon’s wails, yelps and croaks.
And make no mistake about it. While Lydon is actually very melodic, it’s difficult to call what he does singing. It’s quite a bit more like howling. As a first time PiL concertgoer, I really found it quite affecting and extremely different than anything I heard before — which is likely exactly the sort of thing that Lydon wants to hear.
Lydon, looking like a dad who used to be a punk rocker way back in the day, opened the show with the popular PiL ode, “This Is Not a Love Song.” He acknowledged early PiL with “Death Disco” and spent a lot of time in the late 1980s, from where he drew most of his band with songs like “Rise,” “Disappointed” and the Warrior.
The current PiL lineup put out a new album (This Is PiL) earlier this year and the band highlighted it with new selections “One Drop” and “Out of the Woods,” which opened the encore.
Although much of the audience in the half-full 9:30 Club looked like they were on top of the punk movement 25 years ago, Lydon gave them very little connection to the famed Sex Pistols. He railed against politicians in between songs — all politicians — and blasted the Catholic Church in “Religion.” Otherwise, his bearing was much like the musician workman that he is. He bounced a long to his own songs and took the opportunity during breaks to gargle — with water and brandy “to keep his throat open.” You can see how that might be a good thing with the sharp inflections Lydon screams out but it’s still a little unsettling to see an act usually associated with oral hygiene occur regularly on a concert stage.
All in all, PiL played about 15 songs plus a three-song encore for a solid two hours. The first half went by quickly because I never had seen anything like their performance previously. The second half seemed a little repetitive although the audience generally grew more excited as the show went on. For myself, I really started to envision an alternative western movie with a PiL soundtrack, prominently featuring “Warrior” and “Out of the Woods” in particular. There is definitely a little bit of the Wild West in PiL’s music philosophically if not lyrically.
And Lydon’s rejection of “the rules of music” make PiL worth catching if you’ve never seen them play. If the band remains an experiment, it’s a successful one. Here’s to hoping this lineup stays together for a good while and continues to put out new material.