Pet Shop Boys October 11, the Joint
I always worry the Pet Shop Boys won’t come back to town. They’re an odd fit with their visual absurdity, obscure cultural references, lyrical wit and disinclination toward greatest-hits sets—not exactly Vegas-friendly attributes.
But they did return on October 11 at the Joint, and to a bigger (nearly sold-out) crowd than they played to in 2009, at the same venue. And why not? The English synth-pop duo embraces sensorial drama and pulsating beats and all things pop, all of which make them a natural for our particular playground—and made for a supremely thrilling concert Friday night, one that proved just how multi-dimensional and well-crafted dance music can be with the right inspiration.
Everyone from fair-weather fans to the diehards got what they wanted in PSB’s catalog-plunging setlist. Its biggest hits, underappreciated singles (“Miracles,” the bait for its 2003 hits compilation), new favorites (“Thursday,” from the outstanding new album Electric), deep cuts (“Integral,” which ends 2006’s Fundamental), B-sides (1988’s “I Get Excited”) and (maybe too many) covers rounded out the 23-track show, with some selections remixed or mashed together. A favorite like 1985’s “Opportunities” was bookended by a rare midtempo ballad, “Memory of the Future” (from the largely dismissed 2012 album, Elysium), and “One More Chance,” one of their very first releases, which PSB layered with a snippet from “A Face Like That,” also from Elysium.
Though often flanked by a male and female dancer, it’s just vocalist Neil Tennant and instrumentalist Chris Lowe cranking out the goods onstage. Purists might cry foul over the purely digital musical performance, but like a great DJ set, it’s all in the curation and the emotional manipulation of the largely programmed tracks.
And let’s not overlook frontman Tennant, who at 59 remains vocally forceful but clear, and remarkably youthful. His delivery during hit “West End Girls” was sung and rapped exactly as he did on the 1985 studio version, with minor deviations and a surprising enthusiasm, one sign that Tennant was right there with the crowd the entire night. Another one came during during a remix of “Domino Dancing”: An ab-libbed, “Are you just a bad loser, Las Vegas?” We see what you did there, Neil, and likewise when you said, “We think you’ll like this one,” before covering the one-time Elvis hit, “Always on My Mind.”
Tennant and Lowe didn’t have to sweat their stage presence with all the eye candy and production enveloping them. Tennant often hung back while the dancers performed choreographed numbers, usually in outlandish costuming often inspired from the goat-headed idol Baphomet (eat your heart out, Gaga). The musicians themselves also donned a variety of getups, two grown-ass men totally owning their porcupine couture and daffy headwear, the latter dusted off from previous tours and videos. Speaking of familiarity: Weren’t the vertical-bed set pieces during 2009’s jaunty “Love Etc.” taken from opening sequence of the John Waters musical Hairspray? Maybe, but Tracy Turnblad didn’t benefit from the projection mapping that made a tucked-in Tennant and Lowe appear to be thrashing atop their fake mattresses.
Then there was the lighting, which nearly stole the show. Additional projection mapping adorned large screens and background blinds that occasionally opened to reveal a megaclub-shaming wall of spotlights. And the flurry of lasers during 1988’s “I’m Not Scared” was only a tip off of the insane ray displays to come.
Still, the songs mattered most, and a few provided true takeaway moments. Even considering its original synth symphonics, the Catholicism-skewering 1987 hit “It’s a Sin” has never sounded as epic as it did Friday night. Ditto the steroidal performance of “Suburbia,” which drove the crowd into ear-deafening euphoria once cued by its iconic, gorgeous 15-note keyboard melody.
And Electric standout/recent club hit “Vocal” closed the whole affair with a glorious bombardment of keyboards, rhythm and visual spectacle, Tennant singing about those life-affirming experiences at the gig or on the dancefloor: “This is my kind of music/They play it all night long.” Though the Pet Shop Boys vanished shortly after that refrain, the anthem’s goose-pimpling arpeggio and pounding beats continued—as did the feeling we were all young again.