Saturday, November 14, 2015

Public Image Ltd in Pittsburgh

Playing right now: John Coltrane/Wilbur Harden - Countdown, The Savoy Sessions
(I have one of the Coltrane/Harden albums but I always forget which one it is when I see others in the store. Luckily I knew it wasn't this one, which I recently picked up. It's okay, post-Monk 'Trane, but he's still figuring out his vision.)

When the Cowardly Lion sings "If I Were King of the Forest" in The Wizard of Oz, actor Bert Lahr chews up the scenery for humor's sake, but it's clear that he has a pretty strong set of pipes.

That thought raced through my mind on Thursday night while watching John Lydon onstage. He really lives his words as he's onstage, his voice rising and falling in octaves as he goes. He frequently let out a high yelp that, in all honesty, sounded like Jon King's call to arms in Gang of Four's "To Hell With Poverty," which had me wondering who emulated who. After over an hour and a half of this, it's clear that the former Johnny Rotten has a strong set of pipes. And he can get an audience to rise up and obey his command. But he's also a ham, with a dark sense of humor.

"Religion," the scathing condemnation of the church (or as he once stated, the people who have corrupted it) took on a greater meaning in the desanctified church turned nightclub Altar Bar. He began and ended by chanting, "Here come the priests," which gets a little creepy if you try too hard to interpret it. He dropped his voice to a low growl as he went on: "Why should I call you Father? You're not my daddy." Later he yelled, "Turn up the bass," and my nasal passages will tell you that the soundman definitely obliged.

Of course, Lydon was slated to play King Herod in a touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar and you can't pull that off with just a dramatic sneer. Who knows, perhaps he has actually taken some voice training to give his vocal chords more stamina.

Dressed like either an old-school convict or a fellow who just rolled out of bed, still in his PJs, Lydon greeted us with his usual candor: "I have diarrhea. I hope the Imodium works. Bare with me." If he was telling the truth, it didn't show in his performance. He jumped around, used his trademark vibrato (by both shaking his whole head and occasionally tugging on his Adam's apple) and poured everything into the words, which must've have been what was on the music stand in front of him. 

Lydon swears he never panders, and he's right. Though it was a little funny seeing him milk the audience for applause a few times. doing the hand gesture normally see by arena rock bigshots who need to hear the love. Of course maybe he is a bigshot of a different sort. 

Lydon chafed when a friend at the Post-Gazette compared the sound of new PiL album What the World Needs Now... to older PiL albums, but the current lineup does work with that approach. Simon Firth rattled the building's foundation with his bass lines, even without the volume boost in "Religion." Lu Edmonds' guitar, by contrast, was high and trebly, with a bit of chorus, not at all unlike Keith Levene. Drummer Bruce Smith started out playing with punk-jazz bands the Pop Group and Rip, Rig and Panic so he could have very easily built on the grooves, but his timing keeping almost resembled Nick Mason most of the evening, albeit with a little more swing and some subtle dub coloring at certain points.

The evening drew heavily from the new album, but there were a couple old favorites thrown in. Metal Box was represented by "Death Disco" (or "Swan Lake" as it's called on the album). As Lydon told me, it did sound a little stronger than the original version, but it added a breakdown that sounded a little slick as well. "This Is Not a Love Song," from the post-Levene '80s era, also showed up. 

The band was tight and Lydon was fun, but somewhere past the 60-minute mark, they got stuck in mid-tempo territory and even those "ah-ah-OWWW" whoops started to blend together. The newer songs have more verse/chorus structures so there are breaks in them, but we needed a boost. Luckily it came with "Religion." 

For encores, they returned with two songs that I had forgotten about until then. (All that bass made me fuzzy. It was the first time in ages that I wore earplugs that protect from the low end). They blasted into their first single, "Public Image," with Lydon flipping lines in the chorus (the "monopoly" and "property" parts) but this was the money shot, I realized. After all these years of listening to that song at home, I was hearing it live and it sounded awesome.

I hadn't thought about "Rise," which was probably the first exposure to Lydon for most people my age, but that followed, amidst huge cheers. Now, thanks to his new book, we understand that "Anger is an energy" is more than just a slogan, so hearing that live too, was something of a thrill.

Having given us a farewell blessing, and politely introducing his bandmates, Mr. L took off into the night.

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