Photo by JOSH PELTA-HELLER
“Welcome to our 40th!” bellowed PiL frontman John Lydon (a.k.a. former Sex Pistol, Johnny Rotten) by way of a greeting to last night’s crowd at Union Transfer with his trademark sardonic smirk, that look of devilish joy he’s proudly worn throughout the span of his musical life. Currently on the North American leg of their The Public Image Is Rotten tour, and with a documentary of the same name to promote, Public Image Ltd. (Lydon, and current drummer Bruce Smith, guitarist Lu Edmonds, and bassist Scott Firth) is celebrating 40 years of Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols amalgam of mutating, dub-centric rhythm and rock-n-rewrite. Snug as a bug in his buttoned up gray trench coat, with a pair of reading glasses perched toward the edge of his nose and a music stand placed before him, the 62-year old Lydon belted out song after song, his throaty whine and sandpaper growl still intact as the trio behind him ably rode and intensified every groove, keeping us all dancing to a deep pulse of low end wobble and icy six-string melody.
“I’m your friend,” Lydon informed the crowd up one point. “The Naughty Uncle one! Can I play with your willie-wankie-wooze?” Occasionally swirling a mouthful of whisky from cheek-to-cheek before spitting it onto the stage and nipping at a bottle of Pedialyte for hydration, Lydon’s interactions with the crowd served to gauge our attention/enthusiasm level. Throughout the night he would suddenly raise his hands to his ears midway through a song, taking every break from the mic as an opportunity to trigger a reaction. “Lighten up! It’s a party!” he concluded sensing that he’d maybe offended one or two of us in the crowd.
While the tour and documentary both function as tributes to PiL’s legacy, songs from the band’s most recent releases — 2012’s This Is PiL and 2015’s What The World Needs Now… — kept the evening’s set list from devolving into a compendium of the obvious larded with hits meant to appease nostalgists. Welcome inclusions like “Memories” (from 1979’s Metal Box), “Death Disco” (a.k.a. “Black Swan”), and “This Is Not A Love Song” (from 1984’s This Is What You Want… This Is What You Get) received an exuberant response from the audience, but newer songs like “Deeper Water” and “I’m Not Satisfied” garnered no less enthusiasm. Firth’s bass work and Smith’s disco breaks offered an even platform to each song, at points carrying them out longer than their actual runtime. Edmonds, a strewn nest of a beard forming a veritable bib beneath his chin, provided texture, often generating keyboard-similar tones while hunched over his electric saz.
Following a solid performance of “This Is Not A Love Song,” PiL launched into an excellent rendition of “Rise” from their 1986 release, Album. “ANGER IS AN ENERGY!” Lydon repeated, scraping the base of his throat as he finished out the set. As expectations for an encore hung in the air, it wasn’t long before the band stepped back onto the stage.
“If you came to stare, that’s alright,” Lydon said. “I came to stare right back at ya!” With a quick lift of his eyebrows he’d begun exclaiming “Hello!” again and again just before PiL kicked into “Public Image.” It was the last immediate rush of gratification for the audience before the band launched into an extended cover of the Leftfield track, “Open Up.” Turning the song into a call-and-response with the audience, Lydon encouraged us to shout “Fuck off!,” holding the mic stand above us as the words were yelled back. As the music continued, Lydon introduced his bandmates, completing the song with an offer of thanks to the audience. Once the music had ended, Lydon collected his lyrics from the music stand and gave a thumbs up before exiting the stage one last time. — SEAN CALDWELL
- Public Image — from 1978’s Public Image: First Issue
- Open Up (Leftfield cover)