Public Image Ltd. at House of Blues: Live review and photo gallery
Having heard that the reformed Public Image Ltd. was touring, my initial excitement was just slightly dampened after learning that neither original bassist Jah Wobble nor guitarist Keith Levene would be aboard for the voyage. But my curiosity for the band–which for shorthand's sake could be called "the dub-rock band with the Sex Pistols singer" didn't fade after I clocked some respectable Youtube vids of the current line-up playing a main stage at Coachella. While I was in Milwaukee Friday night, I learned that the Public Image show happening was thinly attended, and returning to Chicago I read the same thing about Saturday night's gig here. I know PiL is a bit of a cult act, but surely the cult can fill a room in music-loving Chicago, right? I realize this isn't Neon Indian we're talking about, but come on kids, do some research.
Sunday's show, on the other hand, seemed plenty full—even if I could work my way to stage front and back without much trouble. I kept my expectations low—as I've found it tends to produce a better night out with these rampant reunion tours.
But with Public Image Ltd., expectations are better left at home. Formed by John Lydon and his Hackney schoolmate Jah Wobble, the group used noise, dub basslines, freeform lyrical excursions and open song structures to confound expectations in the wake of punk. Post-punk probably wouldn't have been the same without the band. While punk was an attack on society's hypocrisies, Public Image Ltd. was that and more—an attack on music itself at times. But it also opened up punk to wider influences—some, like dub, musique concrete or Krautrock—become fashionable again and again.
As it turns out, Lydon's current PiL is a formidable group. Former Damned guitarist Lu Edmonds toured with the band beginning with Album (standing in for studio gun Steve Vai) as did former Slits/Pop Group drummer Bruce Smith. Bassist/keyboardist Scott Firth proved his worth last night with throbbing bass grooves—the kind that drive most of PiL's catalog. I saw virtually the same line-up play with New Order and the Sugarcubes in 1989.
But this was a different PiL in Chicago. From the opener "This Is Not a Love Song" to "Death Disco" to "Flowers of Romance," the band wasn't playing up its modest late ’80s commercial success. No, it was playing most of its singles, even the most challenging ones, the songs that still define the far-out boundaries of post-punk. While I don't have a lot of use for "Warrior," a vaguely ravey PiL tune from 1989, the earlier material was unusually affecting Sunday night.
The crucial detail? Lydon is no clown and somehow the PiL material has stuck close to his heart. The raw early material took on new life sung seriously by the mercurial ex-Pistol—he's certainly not phoning this tour in. It's like primal scream therapy for him. His voice last night was at once haunting, anthemic and disturbed. And as much as I think the always sarcastic Lydon wanted to taunt and tease the audience—the guy seems genuinely jazzed that people are coming out. When he quips "Welcome to Public Image Ltd., all the rest is fucking shit," he sounds ready to back it up.
The snarling Lydon we love couldn't help having his say on religion. "Is the pope a Nazi?" he asked us, then explained that, well, yes, he actually was. Next, he connected "Bags" with the recent illegal immigration crackdown in Arizona.
Edmonds stood-out for his dynamic playing—often on an electric buzuq, sometimes on banjo, filling in the space with shades of echo, noise. I couldn't hear drummer Smith enough—the subtleties of his dance-punk style beats weren't registering in the sound system, but the big-as-a-house bass was impossible to miss. And PiL does, in the right context, make music to which you can dance.
Finishing with "Rise," and "Open Up" featuring the lyric "burn Hollywood burn," the band left out some of Album's better moments, but it had proved that its often difficult music is just as worthy.
Photos from May 1 show by Calbee Mundy.