Public Image Ltd November 25, Brooklyn Bowl.
I kept waiting for the announcement that this one had been canceled. Not only did history suggest it wouldn’t hold up—Public Image Ltd nixed a booked Vegas date in 2012—but the heartbreaking erasure of another formative British band’s scheduled stopover (Ride’s November 10 House of Blues show) had me feeling gloomy about the chances PiL would actually play Brooklyn Bowl last Wednesday … right until John Lydon walked onstage, glared at the lanes and yelled, “Are you f*cking bowling again?”
Yes, the gig actually happened, and though the room was far from full, it was nothing like the pretty vacant scene I’d expected walking in. Fans filled about a third of the Bowl’s deep floor area—along with some spillover by the side bar—and participated actively, in a concert lasting nearly two hours without the benefit of opening acts.
The quartet kicked its set off with a slew of recent material, four songs from September’s What the World Needs Now and one from 2012’s This Is PiL, broken up by 1983 U.K. hit “This Is Not a Love Song.” But really, the specific numbers mattered little. This night was about the groove, a hypnotic, rhythmic pulse forged by drummer Bruce Smith and bassist Scott Firth, atop which Lu Edmonds’ guitar sizzled and spiked and Lydon (that’s Sex Pistols vocalist Johnny Rotten, for the uninitiated) sang of corporate greed and religious intolerance.
The 59-year-old frontman looked a bit bloated in his prison-striped jumpsuit, but his voice sounded formidable as ever. During throwback cuts like 1979’s “Death Disco” (a tweaked version of which became “Swan Lake” on seminal post-punk LP Metal Box) and 1993’s “Open Up” (originally a collaboration with electronic duo Leftfield), Lydon altered his tone and inflection constantly, bringing a full range of character to his delivery. He also said things between songs like, “This one’s about the death of my mother—enjoy!”
Though the encore pairing of early single “Public Image” and “Rise,” the band’s best-known song, drew the loudest response, the night’s high mark was undoubtedly “Religion,” off PiL’s 1978’s debut, First Issue. Lydon pushed the lyrics (“Do you pray to the Holy Ghost when you suck your host?”) uncomfortably into our faces, then began repeating “Turn up the bass, turn up the bass, would you like more bass?” The sound man obliged, and the bass gradually became a vibrating, all-consuming force—and one more reason to give thanks, for a show that actually happened, the night before Thanksgiving.