There is a thread of human compassion woven throughout the music of Public Image Ltd. Yes, it's bound up with a proper amount of anger and energy, but it's knotted right at the heart of the pioneering post-punk band, which formed in 1978 after the disbanding of the Sex Pistols. This combination was at the core of PiL's performance at the Vogue Theatre on Sunday night (November 22), a theme consistently referred to in song and banter, established immediately as John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) took the stage.
"Good evening," the iconic frontman snarled, as he put on his glasses. "It's a pleasure to be here. Let's enjoy it."
Any concert billed as "An Evening With…" typically insinuates heavy doses of nostalgia — which would make sense, given it had been over 20 years since PiL last played in Vancouver — but about a third of the tracks from the set came from the group's latest album, 2015's What the World Needs Now… It stood sturdily amongst the earlier material, which ranged from 1978's First Issue to 2012's This is PiL, and verified that the band doesn't need to rely on the past to remain relevant.
In between sips of tea, swigs of alcohol and snot-shots, Lydon gestured like a mad conductor from behind his music stand, shaking his fists and waving his arms as he delivered trademark echoing sneers and wobbly bellows. His theatrical energy was focused, driving the performance with an intensity that was completely engrossing, alongside equally fierce accompaniment from the band, which included veterans of English punk — guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Lu Edmonds (the Damned), drummer Bruce Smith (the Slits) and bassist Scott Firth (who played as a session musician with acts like Morcheeba and the Spice Girls).
No matter the subject, PiL have the ability to confront, charm and enlighten. Lydon raved about blocked toilets on "Double Trouble" and tackled environmental issues on "Don't Tell Me," then rebuked big-businesses as "murderers!" on angry anthem "Corporate," over warped, churning instrumentals. His shrill intonation veered between deep growls and inflated operatics as Edmonds hunched over his bouzouki on the noir-glam highlight "(This is Not a) Love Song."
Ironically, in the midst of "Disappointed" (a song that repeatedly demands, "What are friends for?") a brawl broke out in the crowd. At first, Lydon laughed it off, playing it into the lyrics. "We're all friends here!" But despite a light scolding from Johnny Rotten, the aggressor continued. "Welcome to the church of friendly and proper people," Lydon barked, visibly annoyed. "If you want to be an asshole, fuck off and go outside."
The remainder of the show continued without disturbance. An extended, menacing rendition of "Religion" saw Lydon distorting his voice into a demonic trill as he introduced his band mates as Jesus and the Devil. "Shoom" took things to a joyfully foulmouthed place, the crowd joining Lydon in a dismissal of everything as they jubilantly chanted, "Fuck off!"
After "fucking off for a cigarette," PiL came back for a spirited encore that concluded with fan favourite, "Rise." "Every song is a rebellion," Lydon shouted. "The anger is our energy!"
The audience rose to their feet in applause as the band departed to the wings, leaving just their frontman centre stage. With his hand placed over his heart, Lydon took his bow. "We do this because we love it," he said. "And we love you."