Upon arriving at this 550-capacity venue in the heart of hipsterdom, I’m immediately dismayed that face-value tickets remain available at the box office for one of the most influential avant-rock acts of the 20th century. A vicious part of me wants to interpret this undersold event an indictment of Reunion Mania, a sharp indication that the public is growing fatigued of so many greying bands creaking back to life for gold and glory. Unfortunately, the same venue is already sold out for the following night’s Texas Is the Reason show, negating my admittedly forced thesis.
Instead, the woeful state of affairs is more a function of a tactical promotional failure on the part of the organizers, who concurrently booked the band at the exponentially larger Hammerstein Ballroom, minutes from the Lincoln Tunnel. Judging by my fellow attendees, many of which appear to be at their first standing-room-only concert in some years, it’s reasonable to suspect many of Public Image Ltd.’s longtime fans in this region fled for the safety of suburbs some time ago. (Overheard: “We coulda seen David Blaine. This is so much better!”) Nonetheless, given the UK band’s influence on post-punk revivalists like Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand, the fact that they can’t sell out a measly club in Brooklyn leads me to worry that this might be their final jaunt over the pond.
By the time P.I.L. takes the stage and kicks off with “This Is Not a Love Song”, Music Hall of Williamsburg fills up enough to shield me from a few ghosts from my social past, a smattering of ghoulies I’d sooner cross the street to avoid than rub up against in a fit of dancing. Someone in my general vicinity burps up what I presume to be a tuna fish sandwich, but neither it nor the abundance of uplifted smartphones takes away from my appreciation of the incessantly peppy opening number.
John Lydon, wild-eyed and wizened, wears a too tight jacket that doesn’t stay on for very long and drinks at various intervals from two different bottles, one of which clearly brown and alcoholic. Backed by two P.I.L. veterans — drummer Bruce Smith and guitarist Lu Edmonds — and former Spice Girls live bassist Scott Firth, the ever-unique vocalist wields his instrument with mastery, unleashing rubbery warbles and exasperated yodels that engulf the space and incite the exultations/exhortations of the crowd. Indeed, this is hardly the classic lineup at work, with Keith Levene and Jah Wobble long estranged from the artist once known to the world as Johnny Rotten. But no matter. Throughout this career-spanning setlist, the undeniably skilled quartet perform lengthy jam session versions that remind just how diverse the P.I.L. catalog remains and how frustrating it is to endure musicians who fail to realize that one can have too much of a good thing.
If Bowie had plastic soul, then P.I.L. surely has tupperware dub. Clearly the band respects the Jamaican studio and soundsystem traditions that inspired its inception and subsequent career, yet someone should have informed the fellas that not every song needs to be so damn stretched out. Nobody’s outright asking for a snappy, insincere Greatest Hits Revue packed with medleys and canned banter, but even Lydon himself demonstrates a weariness for the schtick. During “Warrior”, he crankily gripes to Smith, “Come on Bruce. Get to the fucking ‘Warrior’ bit.”
Of course, when the strategy works, as on classic claustrophobic cuts like “Albatross” and highlight “Flowers of Romance”, a sort of hypnosis can take hold. The endlessly grinding, near deafening take on “Religion” — during which a Lydon exhorts the audience to demand an excessive increase in bass volume — breaks that trance and just makes me grit my teeth. After an almost interminable string of dark and winding doozies, I practically leap into the air when acid house ditty “Disappointed” begins. No amount of animatronic mugging and haunted house scowls on the part of Edmonds could spoil that one for me.