The Boston Phoenix, May 17th 2010

© 2010 Boston Phoenix

Boston, Royale, USA, May 5th 2010

Review: Public Image Ltd. at Royale


"It's too bad this club did not know how to properly promote this show" was most definitely not the opening line I expected punk/art-rock legend John Lydon to greet us with when he finally took the stage last Wednesday to front the second of a two-night stand for the newly-reunited Public Image Ltd. at the newly-opened Royale. Of course, it was true that he was gallivanting onto the stage of a room only fractionally full of human beings-- and perhaps this was finally the inversion of Lydon's famous "Ever get the feeling that you've been cheated?" line come back to haunt him. "It was at capacity last night!", Lydon moaned, and for a second, I thought I might be witnessing one of my childhood rock heroes flameout onstage.

But Lydon's wounded pride mattered little in terms of the show delivered, a dream gig for even a casual fan which saw Lydon (with a band comprised mostly of members of Happy?-era PIL) fancifully traipsing through the PIL songbook, stopping for extended periods with material from every era of the band's oeuvre. Of special note was the way the band, early in the set, decided to drive the truck off the cliff with an extended detour into a number of cuts from 1979's Metal Box. The band's run-through of "Poptones", a peculiar track where voice, guitar, bass and drums all operate as separate parts in an ever-shifting machine that never requires all four pieces to be doing the same thing at the same time, was particularly sublime. The Metal Box material is tortured material, full of disembodied wailing and scurrying furvor in both voice and instruments, and it was thrilling to see this band tackle this tricky material and pull it off so winningly, right down to guitarist Lu Edmonds's expert recreation of Keith Levene's spindly guitar doodles.

At around the one-hour mark, John Lydon paused between songs, appearing to choose his words carefully. "It can be... nice, sometimes, to share your pain." A sensible and sensitive statement, especially coming out of the workcamp dancefloor dirge that was "Death Disco," summing up in large part the Public Image blueprint that Lydon has adhered to ever since shedding the Johnny Rotten persona in order to exorcise his own personal demons in the music of PIL. And make no mistake: As much fun as it was to bop around to the ur-grooving of this PIL's recreation of the classic Levene/Wobble/Atkins shake-and-grind, Lydon's PIL voice is pain personified. He may have strode out in comfortable clothing more fitting to a beach bum than a punk legend, with dyed orange hair moussed to stick straight up in the air like someone's crazy uncle in the circus; but his frequent between-song swigs of Hennessy eventually embolded him to dive into the dark recesses of the band's discography.

Eventually they hit the awesomely bleak nadir that is the doom-riff-y "Religion." Before diving in, Lydon excoriated a society that would deny a person under 18 permission to enter his show at Royale (although a quick survey of the audience did not reveal many in attendance who were at all skirting that age limit) and yet allow that same young person to come within close proximity of the slimy grip of a priest. It was a ludicrous statement that still managed to give palpable heft to the dynamo run-through of said tune. Lydon lifted his spindly finger and pointed at individual members of the audience, emphasizing over and over the tune's mantra of "This is what they've done/This is your religion." As we all mentally ducked his steely gaze, staring down the barrel of his damning finger, we began to understand what it was to witness an intimate show with Johnny Rotten himself: he wasn't trapped with us, forced to entertain us, we were trapped in here with him and his oversized personality. It was mildly terrifying, it was hysterical, it was thrilling, it was ridiculous, and it was glorious.


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