Typically, a show billed as “An Evening With...” is something of a nostalgia trip for longtime fans. But that wasn't quite the case with the Public Image Ltd show at the Gothic Theatre on Friday night. A third of the tracks from the set came from the group's latest album, 2015's What the World Needs Now..., which stood up well alongside the classic earlier material — proving that PiL didn't return only to deliver anemic, later-era material or to stroll down memory lane, but to be present.
John Lydon's animated performance was bird-like in its nervy energy, with broad gestures and often manic facial expressions. Always a performer of incredible energy, Lydon appeared to have fine-tuned his theatrical element to the essentials while convincing audience members that they still didn't really know what he would do at any given moment. Lydon was ill, telling the crowd he was indulging in cough medicine and throat spray, as well as drinking tea and some alcohol to even it all out. At one point, he blocked one nostril and blasted a stream of liquid out of the other. He then made an expression that told you he knew it was gnarly, and laughed it off. To some in the audience, that was the most punk-rock part of the show.
Antics aside, though, the sheer energy and intensity of the band was impressive. No, they didn't jump around like a young punk band might, but a focused intensity drove the performance. There were also moments when Lydon and the band somehow managed to be menacing and comical at the same time, especially on a powerful, ominous rendition of “Religion,” from their eponymous 1978 debut.
The band included veterans of English post-punk. On guitar was Lu Edmonds, who still plays with the Mekons but was an early member of the Damned and performed with Shriekback. Drummer Bruce Smith was involved in the Pop Group and the Slits, among other outfits. Bassist Scott Firth spent years as a session musician, but also played with Spice Girls, Elvis Costello and Morcheeba.
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Performing songs from the entire range of the band's career, minus tracks from Flowers of Romance and That What Is Not reaffirmed that PiL has consistently taken strange musical ideas and made them accessible: the kind of pop music that doesn't dumb things down. “Death Disco,” about the death of Lydon's mother, was dark and desperate, but with a playfulness and absurdity that lifted the heaviness of the subject matter while maintaining the emotional impact of its inspiration. It was the key composition that highlighted what has made PiL such an interesting band beyond its musical innovations and pioneering blend of art rock, punk, dub and the avant-garde. In “This is Not a Love Song,” “Bettie Page,” “Religion,” “Shoom,” “Double Trouble,” “Public Image” and even “Rise,” there is a thread of compassion for the human condition and the perpetual search for meaning in life and the meaning of life.
1. Double Trouble
2. Know Now
3. This Is Not a Love Song
4. Bettie Page
5. Deeper Water
7. Death Disco
8. The One
10. The Body
13. Open Up/Shoom
14. Public Image