By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
There was nothing rotten about the performance John Lydon and Public Image Ltd. delivered Monday night at the Midland Theater. Faced with a miniscule crowd in a minor market on a weeknight, Lydon and the band could have phoned in their performance and few would have known. The four-piece band held nothing back during the high-energy, two hour show.
Public Image Ltd., or PiL, is the band Lydon formed after the Sex Pistols imploded. Although the band carried on for 15 years, its catalog can be broken down into two distinct eras. The first three albums were a conscious deconstruction of the Pistols mythology, filled with long, heavy, experimental pieces. Later work boiled down to Lydon solo projects under the PiL name produced with a rotating cast of musicians (including, incredibly, Steve Vai).
The reconstituted PiL, back together for the first time since disbanding in 1992, drew equally from both eras, and tossed in a couple numbers from Lydon’s 1997 solo release for good measure. Older numbers, like the magnificent “Poptones,” the epic “Albatross” or “Chant” were studies in texture and ambience. As the rhythm section of Bruce Smith on drums and new member Scott Firth on bass anchored the songs, guitarist Lu Edmonds welded huge blocks of sound which Lydon penetrated effortlessly with his shrill voice.
The backing trio clearly enjoyed having the space to stretch out and play with different sounds. Firth and Edmonds sparred on “Flowers of Romance” before Edmonds delivered his first solo of the night on an electric banjo. Firth switched to upright electric bass for several numbers which added extra punch to Smith’s cadences.
Although Lydon was about the same age as his gray-haired compatriots he appeared decades younger. His head was shaved, save long, blonde spikes on top that looked like a mischievous crown. After removing a red vest early in the night, Lydon was clad entirely in black. He kept a lyric book on a music stand near his mic and although he rarely looked at them during a number, he dutifully turned the page after each song. When Lydon was really feeling the music, he would hop up and down or do a robo-monster march, a manic expression plastered on his face.
While the older material was dark and amorphous, the newer songs were bright, poppy and quite danceable. The set opened with PiL’s biggest number, “This Is Not a Love Song.” Later, “Sun” was delivered via acoustic guitar and mouth organ. As Lydon led the crowd in sing-along, the arrangement almost had a klezmer feel. “Disappointed” got the biggest reaction during the main set and had everyone near the stage bouncing. Lydon later joked about the song’s message of forgiveness didn’t quite stand with the cynicism of his other tunes.
During his four decades in the spotlight, Lydon has cultivated a reputation for acerbically speaking his mind, and he didn’t disappoint onstage Monday. “Warrior” contained a political diatribe and a few not-so-kind words for Sarah Palin. Lydon introduced “Religion” as “a song that is 30 years old and as accurate as ever.” He then made a few comments about the Pope that won’t be earning him a Vatican invite any time soon.
The night ended with “Public Image,” the song that most resembles Lydon’s former band, and the upbeat “Rise,” which contains an interpretation of the Irish blessing “may the road rise to meet you.” “Open Up,” Lydon’s collaboration with the techno duo Leftfield, closed the night. As the crowd danced to the heavy bed of looped synthesizers, Lydon’s voice panned and swirled around the room.
As the band waved good night, the punk provocateur let his guard drop with a fleeting moment of sincerity when thanked everyone from the bottom of his heart for coming out. The tiny crowd comfortably filled the first two tiers on the floor, but the third was sparse and the fourth was empty.There were a few dozen people sitting on chairs in the back, but the entire audience could have probably crammed into the Beaumont Club. That venue may have been more size-appropriate, but it wouldn’t have been much fun. PiL had no problem filling the vast Midland, and Lydon’s outsized persona needed – and deserved – a bigger stage.
Setlist: This Is Not A Love Song, Poptones, Memories, Tie Me to the Length of That, Albatross, Death Disco, Flowers of Romance, Psychopath, Warrior, USLS 1, Disappointed, Sun, Bags, Chant, Rise, Religion. Encore: Public Image, Rise, Open Up.