Thursday, May 6, 2010

(This is Not a) PiL Blog

When John Lydon announced last September that he was resurrecting the “Public Image Limited” moniker for a string of U.K. dates that December, responses from the music world ranged from eye-rolling disinterest to rabid fanboy/fangirl euphoria. As a longtime fan, I found myself standing right in the middle of those extremes. While the idea of seeing PiL live in action after an 18-year layoff was beyond appealing, I wasn’t exactly jumping up and down over the band lineup that would be making the “reunion” rounds. (No Wobble, Atkins or Levene? Bringing back two guys from PiL’s least experimental period? Really?) Also, would a fiftysomething Lydon even be able to produce a convincing PiL show? But, like the dutiful PiL fanatic (PiLock?) I am, I eagerly followed the press and YouTube videos (complete with Lydon’s “this is the best band ever” interview hyperbole) that surfaced as the U.K. dates moved along. The reviews and videos were pretty damn good, so it was with great confidence and enthusiasm that I purchased tickets to see PiL’s May 5, 2010 performance at the Royale in Boston.

Not only was I not disappointed, but I also had the privilege of seeing one of the greatest live bands on the planet.

First off, let’s do away with the “this isn’t really PiL” nonsense – silliness that even I was guilty of perpetuating in the recent past. Bruce Smith is as powerful behind a drum kit now as he was with The Slits nearly 30 years ago, while the returning Lu Edmonds brings the same musicality to the table that made even PiL’s most commercially-minded mid-80s material a vibrant listen. And while new bassist Scott Firth lacked the sly onstage menace of (the usually seated) Jah Wobble, he more than held his own in PiL’s second-most crucial slot.

Like the free-form monster captured on 1980’s Paris In The Spring, the current PiL played the majority of their set list in an incredibly loose fashion that made for an exhilarating display. (For example, “Poptones” – which felt wonderfully out of place following “This Is Not A Love Song” – went SOMEWHERE ELSE ENTIRELY around minute three.) Watching Smith’s mischievous smiles behind the kit, one gets the sense that the band takes a song wherever they want to at any particular moment. Simply put, PiL were impressively tight and gloriously shambolic all at once.

Although the relatively sparse – and vaguely responsive – crowd often didn’t give Lydon much in the way of feedback (“I feel like we’re being analyzed!” sneered the man between songs), he clearly earned every penny of the ticket price through a performance that ranged from the expectedly humorous (blowing snot out of his nose) to the chillingly human (a particularly pained rendition of “Death Disco”). After 35 years in one of the most savage industries in the world, Lydon is as raw, honest and inspiring as ever – and PiL remains one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences in modern music.