“We remember this place,” John Lydon commented as he and his cohorts in Public Image Ltd. took the stage at the Music Hall of Williamsburg last night. As well he should. In 2010, PIL played the 550-capacity club after two shows at Terminal 5, which holds six times the amount of people. The intimate Brooklyn club is no doubt smaller than the majority of venues on the band’s current tour, which also includes a show Saturday at the 3,900-capacity Hammerstein Ballroom.
Lydon seemed suitably pleased to be back in the small room, even letting something of a smile crack through his normally gnarly visage. The audience had reason to be pleased too, as the band delivered a two-hour set that ran the gamut of the PIL catalog. They began the night with “This Is Not a Love Song,” which these days rolls atop a metallic post-funk bounce much fuller than the song’s original lean incarnation. Indeed, the band’s MO was to adapt each song—whether “Albatross” from Metal Box or “Warrior” from 9—to the band’s current aesthetic rather than hop around stylistically all night. This was particularly noticeable with Lu Edmonds’ guitar emanations, with inflected cuts like “Flowers of Romance” and “Death Disco” with his own gypsy accentuations.
Similarly, Lydon favors a good deal of vocal acrobatics these days. Gargling with Hennessey between songs, he admitted to being a little under the weather. It didn’t seem to have too great an effect on his vocals, as he careened between caterwauled crescendos and guttural growls as each song demanded. There were moments, however, when all the trilling and hyperbolic delivery got to be a bit much, and it would have been preferable for him to show some of the snarling whine of old. But that was a minor quibble, especially as the set began its climax with “Death Disco.” “Bags” was equally exhilarating, with its thunderous beat and scraping guitars, but it was “Religion” that was the showstopper. Lydon channelled plenty of contempt and anger into the song’s screed on the evils of the church. With the crowd’s blessing, he had the soundman turn Scott Firth’s mesmeric bassline up to a heart-pounding level to close the set with a thump.
After a cigarette break, Lydon and company returned for a three-song encore of “Out of the Woods” from This Is PIL, their big hit, “Rise,” and “Open Up,” a song Lydon recorded with Leftfield in the ’90s. After “Religion,” it was something of a denouement, but then just about anything would have been. (I was surprised they didn’t play “Public Image.”) With there being very little letdown throughout the night, though, ultimately it was hard to feel anything but a bit bewildered by show’s end.