Live Review: A Statesman's Fury, Public Image Ltd. at the Hammerstein Ballroom
Neither burnt out nor faded away.
He'll forever live in the shadow of the Sex Pistols, but Johnny Rotten (yes, I know he goes by John Lydon, but forgive me) has now spent decades neither burning out nor fading away. Having reunited his post-Pistols post-punk band Public Image Ltd. to record and tour the world, there might be every reason to expect diminished returns, but in their Hammerstein Ballroom show last night, Johnny and the boys brought a well-honed dose of concentrated fury and controlled rhythm to an impressive two hour set of new and signature songs.
Most impressive was John himself, who has managed to transition to rock statesman without losing his penchant for fury. What's fascinating is how he brings so much to his vocal performance, every phrase, yelp and growl tinted with a directed rage, while still able to goof in between. It's like a masterpiece of compartmentalization from a guy who knows "anger is an energy" but has mastered how to control it. And control is indeed the overpowering quality of his voice. Now more than ever, it's undeniable that John is an amazing singer, his limited range more than compensated for by his dynamic use of it. That quiver that made "Anarchy in the UK" so aggressive is still in full form, and still strangely resonant.
A dynamo performance would mean little if Lydon weren't back by such well-shaped music. Often dubbed the first post-punk band, PiL is essentially drum and bass music, played live but often enhanced by a synthetic beat. In the marvelous acoustics of the Hammerstein, that beat rolled on for mostly ten minute songs, leaving Johnny to parse his committed phrasings and Lu Edmonds to texturize the music with a myriad of unique guitars run through echo filters. The effect was often disorienting but always gripping, as though we were hearing the songs played from the depths of such distant cavern.
It's dance music in spirit, but charged invitation in performance. As John barked through political tunes like "Warrior" or more melodic gems like "Rise" or "This is Not a Love Song," he often seemed as much Great Awakening preacher as punk icon. There was nothing safe about PiL even as they rely on the laurels of seasoned professionals, and the quality of both songwriting and sound only enhances the unique vision behind the work.
If the show at Hammerstein in any indication, Johnny's got miles to go before he sleeps, which is good news for all of us.
|Video for "Rise"|