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Public Image Ltd. Play Brooklyn, Mix Vitriolic Songs Old and New – Live Review

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Shauna Farnell

“Lock up your children. The priests are coming,” John Lydon wailed in a theatrically deepened voice as he and Public Image Ltd. launched into an extended version of 1978’s ‘Religion,’ arguably the most intense 12 minutes of the band’s relentlessly pounding two-hour set at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg last night (Oct. 9).

“The bass will purify your soul,” Lydon informed the crowd in his best sanctimonious drawl as bassist Scott Firth ramped up his four-string to the point that the monitors were trembling.

“Do you pray to the Holy Ghost when you suck your host? Do you read who’s dead in the Irish Post? Do you give away the cash you can’t afford … on bended knees and PRAAAAAY TO THE LOOOORD?” Lydon recited with increasing volume and in his trademark vibrato.

PiL’s first New York stop on a U.S. tour supporting their first studio record in 20 years (‘This is PIL,’ released in May) drew a sold-out crowd filled with avid fans. Although most were white men in their 40s, there was one kid, maybe 12 years old, who wedged himself into the front row after his father had outfitted him in a new PiL T-shirt. The audience near stage, meanwhile, was also flecked with younger fans — one clad in a Marines uniform, hat and all — who sang along to every track.

Across the sea of faces, the common countenance was one of rapt wonder. Some of the 20-somethings who were not singing were staring expectantly, either waiting (in vain) to hear ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ or simply hypnotized by Lydon’s bizarre penguin dancing and stage antics.

After a 17-year hiatus, the band — carefully selected by Lydon from his ever-changing PiL lineups — delivered each number impeccably, guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Lu Edmonds adding sizzling, power-packed lead riffs to classics like ‘Rise’ and ‘Flowers of Romance.’ One of Lydon’s many shining moments came during ‘Religion,’ as he hollered, “This is Jesus Christ!” and propelled Edmonds (who, with his aged and focused forehead and long, graying hair, is not un-Christ-like in appearance) to the front of the stage. There, Edmonds produced an electric slide lighted with a glowing spiral and attacked the neck of his guitar for all to see.

True fans were certainly not disappointed with the selection of older numbers from the expansive PiL catalog, including several from the band’s most non-commercial release, 1979′s “Metal Box.”

The set opened with 1984’s ‘This Is Not a Love Song,’ followed by ‘Deeper Water’ off the new record and a haunting version of 1979’s ‘Albatross.’ ‘Religion’ inspired the encore and was preceded by a very energetic rendition of ‘Bags’ from 1986’s ‘Album.’ Lydon once again altered his voice (an effect made possible, it would seem, by his incessant gargling of Hennessy, which he drank from a bottle, swished around and spit on the floor) as he crooned “like a rubber bag, like a rubber bag, like a rubber bag.” He leaned into the mic, grasping the stand with one hand on top with the other, a style he’s maintained since his Sex Pistols days. From ‘Bags,’  he effortlessly segued into another ‘Metal Box’ classic, the delightfully romping and somewhat discordant ‘Chant.’

After leaving the stage, the band returned to thunderous applause, and Lydon announced that he cherishes his cigarette breaks. From here, PiL launched into a lively version of the brand new, Civil War-inspired ‘Out of the Woods,’ followed by a truly heartfelt rendition of ‘Rise,’ the chorus of which, “May the road rise with you,” echoed from every mouth in the place. Lydon stirred up additional singalongs by asking, “What is ANG-ER?” and holding the mic stand over the audience to amplify the answer: “Anger is an energy!”

Lydon closed with a non-techno and therefore nearly unrecognizable rendition of 1989’s Leftfield collaboration ‘Open Up’ and then thanked bandmates Bruce Smith (who he earlier described as “a f—ing good drummer”), Edmonds and Firth, all of whom took a humble bow before shuffling offstage. As the crowd filed out, the murmuring went something like, “Wow. That was amazing. How old is he now?” or, “I don’t know how he can still do that. He must need to rest his vocal chords every day between gigs.”

Or, he could just gargle with cognac all night. However Johnny makes it happen, he just does. Long live PiL.

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