Time Out New York, May 20th 2010
New York, Music Hall of Williamsburg, USA, May 19th 2010
Public Image Ltd. at Music Hall of Williamsburg
by Steve Smith
"If you spit at me one more time, I will macerate your fucking face," John Lydon said from the Music Hall of Williamsburg stage on Wednesday night, during the second of two local shows by his seminal postpunk band, Public Image Ltd. "You're at the wrong gig at the wrong time, asshole." Beyond its impressive display of florid vocabulary, Lydon's warning made a larger point: If anyone was living in the past during the first PiL tour in 17 years, it was not Lydon, but rather audience members who turned up expecting the shambolic performances and nose-thumbing tactics he had largely abandoned in the mid-’80s.
What PiL's Williamsburg show—and, to judge by media accounts, the previous night's show at Terminal 5—made perfectly clear was that Lydon is less interested in confrontation than catharsis. Playing for more than two hours for a capacity crowd made up of aged fans and curious newcomers, the iconic vocalist and his current bandmates—guitarist Lu Edmonds and drummer Bruce Smith, who played in a late-’80s version of the group, plus newcomer bassist Scott Firth—put an authoritative stamp on material that spanned PiL's entire catalog, from the abrasive First Issue, the groundbreaking Metal Box and the haunted Flowers of Romance to more commercially viable later efforts like Album and 9.
Acidic yowl improbably well preserved (no doubt partly through liquor gargled and spat into a trash can throughout the show), Lydon directed his venom at familiar targets—organized religion, false friends—and a few new ones as well. Hearing him take shots at Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, and later boosting President Obama during "Warrior," you were acutely aware of the degree to which Lydon, long a California resident, identifies as American now.
The biggest surprise of the show, arguably, was not the group's proficiency, but rather the success with which it reinvented and laid claim to songs indelibly associated with PiL members long gone. Aside from a few lapses ("Psychopath" and "Sun," both from Lydon's 1997 solo LP, Psycho's Path), everything here sounded of a piece: stuttering dub, throbbing disco and aggressive rock rendered credibly as the work of one band rather than several. The climax came in a towering, overwhelming performance of "Death Disco" that sent the entire audience into spasms, Lydon expressing the song's agony as if feeling it anew.
"Some of these songs really, really hurt me because they're deeply real, so thank you for your patience," he said while recovering. Then, brightly: "But I'm amongst friends!" Similar sentiments peppered Lydon's banter throughout the evening. What it suggested, more than anything, was a former snarling punk icon begging the indulgence of his longtime fans for the unthinkable trespass of having finally grown up—and, perhaps, a gentle reminder that they had too. The rage in set-closers "Chant" and "Religion" remained as livid as ever, but in the encore, appealing to solidarity and community, Lydon tweaked the lyrics to his signature song: "The public image belongs to all of us."
This Is Not a Love Song
Tie Me to the Length of That
Four Enclosed Walls
Flowers of Romance
Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom)