I’ve seen the unglamorous aging of punk rock and— wouldn’t you know it— John Lydon, once known as Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, is embracing it with down-to-earth charm. Before Public Image Ltd., i.e. PiL, took the stage at Grand Central in Miami last Friday, I was advised to get there on time. The group would start at 9 p.m. sharp. It actually started about 15 minutes later, but still damn early for a headline act (no opener) at Grand Central.
The band came out to the darkened stage with no intro music beyond what the DJ had been playing for the few dancers. “We’re pill,” said Lydon before the band kicked off its near two-hour set with “This is Not a Love Song.” It was pure, driving power pop propulsion, while Lydon’s voice shifted and morphed from warbles to buzz saw growls and barks. The power trio version of this song was a refreshing thing to hear stripped of the disco-stylings, like the horns, of its original version. Lu Edmonds played an electric saz, a Persian instrument from the lute family, for the song. Though exotic to look at, it did not take the song to any strange places beyond its distinctive potency. What this band— which also included Bruce Smith on drums (another longtime PiL alum) and new bassist Scott Firth— did do well was groove along and indulge in the essence of the PiL sound: pure post-punk.
Edmonds, who went on to play in the Damned and the Mekons after PiL, before recently returning to a newly reformed PiL, shined as a talented guitarist during the grooves. The band highlighted lots of material from its new album This is PiL, which features some grand, unrelenting hooks. “Deeper Water,” one of the band’s new songs, followed “This is Not a Love Song” and rode a catchy guitar line laced with the reggae influence of so much British post-punk of the seventies, as Lydon delighted in his amorphous voice for an almost seven-minute duration. The band were tight and kept things interesting with some pre-programmed keyboard lines that joined in from the ether.
They also explored some old songs, and their sober, mature quality even made songs like the 11-minute “Albatross” a pleasant moment. The piercing hiss of the Keith Levene’s original guitar and Rotten’s once tired, melting voice were replaced by Edmonds’ rambling and roaring guitar work and Lydon sounded vibrant and awake. The rhythm section offered a solid drone, as the group reveled in wallowing in its minimalist punk until coming to a sputtering stop.
I captured a video of the next song, another new one called “One Drop,” where the now rather rotund and flabby Lydon sings, “We are teenagers” with a slight trace of irony:
The set went on in much the same manner, visiting old mainstays like “Disappointed” but also featuring new songs like “Reggie Song,” which fit comfortably in the band’s oeuvre. The songs had a repetitive quality and seemed extended longer than they needed, but that’s typical PiL. It’s like they drive a hook of a song in perpetuity in order to allow it to stick in your head.
The audience, composed of members of the aged punk generation of the early eighties and of the early nineties alternative nation years of MTV, mostly nodded along to the music and occasionally raised their fists. A few pogo-ed for a few seconds at a time. A 20-year break between albums can do something to your relevance, as few in the audience were current generation hipsters.
Lydon was an amenable front man. He spit on stage once— that I saw— and excused himself for using a big bottle of something for mouthwash and not swallowing. He even seemed to present himself as pro-Obama, lamenting the president’s weak showing at that week’s debate. “You couldn’t put that fuckin’ presidential debate to music. Believe me, I tried,” he said before introducing “U.S.L.S. 1.” Before the song’s grand chiming guitar line soared off, he said, “Here’s what would happen if Romney gets in” about the song with the line “The devil takes care of his own.” Again, the song sounded even grander live with this line-up of musicians, who delighted in new dynamics missing from the original.
After a few more songs, the band would take a five-minute break before returning to the stage for a lengthy encore that began with the 10-plus-minute closer off the new album, “Out of the Woods.” That song then dovetailed into the band’s biggest song, “Rise,” and Lydon encouraged audience participation by hanging the mic over the audience for the “Anger is an energy” line. PiL closed the show with “Open Up,” an early Leftfield song that Lydon sang guest vocals on. It was an apt indulgent turn that revealed PiL’s seemless connection to droning house music. The jam probably lasted 15 minutes.
PiL came across as a well-preserved relic of a certain era which— as it did in its early post-punk days— revealed scarcely a trace of Lydon’s punk roots as Johnny Rotten. These were skilled, mature musicians up on stage that night for a show made more tolerable by a mostly subdued crowd who were there for the music rather than to be “seen.” People mostly stood in rapt attention, and they were easy to walk among and never crowded up against each other (unless you were the tight, small bunch toward the front of the stage).
This is Not a Love Song
Swan Lake (A.K.A. Death Disco)
Out of the Woods
North American tour dates for PiL continue thusly:
10/08 – Washington, DC @ 9:30 Club
10/09 – Brooklyn, NY @ The Music Hall of Williamsburg
10/11 – Philadelphia, PA @ Electric Factory
10/12 – Clifton Park, NY @ Upstate Concert Hall
10/13 – New York, NY @ Hammerstein Ballroom
10/15 – Boston, MA @ Royale Boston
10/16 – Montreal, QC @ Club Soda
10/18 – Toronto, ON @ The Opera House
10/19 – Detroit, MI @ Royal Oak Music Theatre
10/21 – Chicago, IL @ House of Blues
10/22 – Minneapolis, MN @ Mill City Nights
10/25 – San Francisco, CA @ Regency Ballroom
10/28 – Los Angeles, CA @ Club NOKIA
11/01 – Dallas, TX @ Granada Theater
11/03 – Austin, TX @ Fun Fun Fun Fest