Public Image Ltd. @ 9:30 Club (10/8/12)
The image of fading rock stars maintaining an existence that flies directly counter to the proclamations of their younger selves is a (increasingly) common one. The irony is exceptionally strong for John Lydon (né Rotten), thanks to his immortalization at the hands of Neil Young. Yet for all of the changes that have taken place over the course of his career, one thing has remained constant: John Lydon is a brat. He’ll freely admit it. It’s the trait that got him into the Sex Pistols, it’s the trait that made them famous, and it’s the trait that has kept him in the public eye for over 30 years.
Off-stage, this characteristic manifests itself as bravado that belies a high level of intelligence, and an unparalleled ability to tweak social norms. The man gains a perverse satisfaction from wiggling his way out of any and all attempts by his critics, his fans, and even his peers, to define him. As a young musician, he made headlines for his offensive lyrics and outrageous publicity stunts. As a veteran musical authority, Lydon has proclaimed himself single-handedly responsible for the entire punk (and possibly post-punk) movement. In his mind, none of his contemporaries were worth squat musically, they couldn’t stack up on the charts, and if they dared to be more successful or experimental or (gasp) outlast him, they were all sell outs (while he of course remained pure). Yet love him or hate him, you didn’t ignore him.
On stage, however, Lydon’s brattiness has made for some pretty great, in fact legendary, music that demands grudging acceptance of his overtly lofty sense of self-worth. Both the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd. are seminal, genre-changing groups, without whom rock and roll would have been forever left to the likes of Boston and Duran Duran. The genius behind the influence of these bands is driven by his unpredictable idiosyncrasies: only Rotten could get away with decrying abortion, facism, sex and the British monarchy on a single album, and then immediately turn around and reject his own method of rejection (as well as his name and stage character).
Given these personal inconsistencies, no one is ever really sure what to expect from Lydon. He is part artist, part performer, part P.R. man. So it was for a show at the 9:30 Club by the current version of Public Image Ltd. And as expected, Lydon delivered the unexpected.
For Lydon the artist, two words you would never think to use as adjectives are “humble” and “dedicated.” But backed by an incredible backing band who managed to stay impressively faithful to the funky rhythm section and piercing guitars of the original incarnation, Lydon gave an energetic, inspirational performance, featuring some amazingly dexterous singing (kept in tune by a bizarre routine of swigging water, then bourbon that he would quickly spit out into a spittoon in the middle of the stage). Alternating between high and low-pitched vocals, Lydon sang from the deepest pits of his lungs, carrying the group through an impressively manic dance-rock set that clearly drew the blueprint for bands like LCD Soundsystem.
Musically, rather than being anonymous sidemen backing a legend, the band was instead the perfect foil for Lydon. Guitar player and Rasputin look-a-like Lu Edmonds used an array of quirky instruments to spin out meandering, amelodic riffs that served as stark counterpoints to Lydon’s vocals. Meanwhile, bass player Scott Firth carried the songs with a masterful imitation of original PiL member Jah Wobble’s legendary playing, while drummer Bruce Smith’s dexterity demonstrated why he has been a key player in several notable post-punk bands (including The Pop Group and The Slits). Indeed, the performance was so strong that it would have been completely appropriate for Lydon to step aside while the band tried out some of PiL’s famous instrumentals (he didn’t, obviously).
The characters played by Lydon the performer varied from song to song, sometimes angry, other times motivational, always to be taken with a grain of salt. He chided the under-capacity crowd for not being louder or more energetic. He made a few snide comments about politicians, but kept surprisingly apolitical. He led the crowd during a sing-along of “Rise,” and engaged the audience in a call-and-response during the halting, screeching set-closer “Religion.” Of course, being Lydon, his calls were not for cheers or applause, but rather on whether to turn up the bass levels to nearly eardrum-bursting conditions. He even *gasp* thanked the crowd enthusiastically after the encore, a far cry from his instigator days.
The show was not without its faults. As Lydon noted, the crowd was unusually sparse and subdued (though competing indie shows at U Street Music Hall and Black Cat probably played a big factor). The set list was short and slightly heavy on new material. Most annoyingly, every time the band built some momentum in one of their songs, they immediately followed with a slow, stilting song with no beat. It was a frustrating ordeal that sapped the energy out of the room and aggravated the crowd, playing into their disengagement. Now that I think about it, it almost seems like it was intentional…
- This Is Not a Love Song
- Deeper Water
- One Drop
- Flowers of Romance
- U.S.L.S. 1
- Reggie Song
- Death Disco
- Out of The Woods
- Open Up