“Don’t blame me if you don’t like it”, said John Lydon, a couple songs into PiL’s powerful set Friday night. “These songs actually mean something to me.” You could justifiably denounce his reunion tours with the Sex Pistols as shameless money-grabs; he freely admitted it at the time, and it’s doubtful that songs like “Holidays In The Sun” or “E.M.I.” have much meaning for him these days. But PiL was always the more personal project for the erstwhile Johnny Rotten, and it showed tonight.
Rather than snarl and spit at the audience, Lydon was the perfect gentleman, graciously acknowledging the crowd’s enthusiasm. “I believe in mutual respect,” he said. “Except for you fucks sitting down in the back. The paraplegic section is right up here.” I suppose some might’ve taken offense to this, but how would you feel if you were playing intense, highly danceable music and pouring your soul out onstage, and half the crowd sat motionless?
This new incarnation of PiL retains a couple of late-80s stalwarts, guitarist Lu Edmonds and drummer Bruce Smith, but newcomer Scott Firth was bound to be intently scrutinized considering the shoes he had to fill; nothing was ever the same in music once founding bassist Jah Wobble left his mark on post-punk via the first two PiL albums. Firth was prominent in the mix (excellent sound in the Pabst, as usual), and his playing was outstanding, channeling the dub elements from the early material and breaking down the more straightforward later tunes to their primal essence.
Latter-day tunes such as “Warrior”, “U.S.L.S. 1” and “Disappointed” were virtual deconstructions, stripped of their studio pop sheen and reinterpreted in the more jagged and improvisational spirit of early (and current) PiL. What were once relics are now classics, echoing through every piece of indie rock with a dance beat: "Albatross", "Death Disco", "Bags" and the jaw-dropping rendition of "Religion" seethed with renewed vigor. Even John's solo, um, curiosities (from 1997's Psycho's Path) "Psychopath" and "Sun" gelled naturally within the set. The wildly different eras of Lydon’s music blended together like never before under the unifying vision of the bug-eyed legend.
Seventeen years of dormancy have revealed the thread that ties all of Johnny’s post-Pistols work together, and he now has the perfect band to show it off. Edmonds switched from guitar to knob-twiddling to electric saz and other exotic stringed instruments with ease, and the whole band was impressively dialed into the sometimes disjointed rhythmic hiccups of Lydon. It was the perfect combination of harrowing unease and confident communication. It never felt like a tossed-off reunion for a second.
There were undoubtedly some curious folks here just hoping for some sort of outburst from the outspoken punk legend, and plenty of old-timers too uptight or resigned to dance, but the throngs nearest the stage were mostly fanatical. Lydon responded with unbridled fierceness. There were moments when it seemed as if he might burst into sobs, moments when indignation or fury threatened to overwhelm the music, but his voice was inhumanly undisturbed by age, and his animalism only urged the band to greater heights of insanity. The man is as sincere in his love for humanity as in his disdain for society’s bullshit, and the world is again inching in the right direction with one of music’s greatest visionaries back in action.
Setlist: Love Song, Poptones, Memories, Tie Me to the Length of That, Albatross, Death Disco, Flowers of Romance, Psychopath, Warrior, U.S.L.S. 1, Disappointed, Sun, Bags, Chant, Religion
Encore: Public Image, Rise, Open Up