Public Image Limited
Thalia Hall Chicago Monday 22 October 2018
First let me say this was my first time at Thalia Hall. What an amazing venue it is! It’s more theater than club, but not as stuffy as a traditional theater. In fact that was one of the nicest things. There was a distinct lack of formality: none of the traditional bouncers, doorman etc that make a place feel alien. The staff were all very welcoming and wanted you to have a good time, which is a nice change from being made to feel like a criminal or a nuisance. The venue itself is wide but short and has a seated balcony surrounding the entire space which makes it feel very intimate.
The merch table was interesting. Along with the regulation $40 t-shirts and albums they also had PIL windbreaker jackets which was an interesting touch. And they had a selection of Johnny Rotten signed merch for extra cash. Cash from Chaos, right? The stage set was striking: a floor to ceiling brown brick backdrop with a huge blue and wood-stain PIL logo behind the drum kit.
PIL being PIL, they had no support act. Doors opened at 7.30 and showtime was listed at 8.30. Sure enough they came onstage just a little past 8.30 which was nice and professional of them. I appreciated that. It’s a 4 piece band now: Johnny on vocals, Scott Firth bass, Bruce Smith drums, and Lu Edmonds on guitar/bouzouki, and there appeared to be a keyboard player lurking on the left of the stage, but I couldn’t really tell what he was up to. The instruments used were super interesting: Lu had any number of regular guitars plus a strange looking bouzouki that he sometimes played with his fingers and sometimes played with a violin bow. The bass player played a regular bass for most of the set, but at times he played an electric stand up that appeared to be little more than a long neck. He also plinked around on a synth during “Flowers of Romance”.
As for the show itself, well they played for a long time. Close to two hours with the encore. I counted around 16 songs that spanned the totality of their career to date, from their first 45 “Public Image”, to “I’m Not Satisfied” off their 2015 album “What the World Needs Now…”. Confession time: I have to admit that I’m not the biggest PIL fan. I like their first two albums, but when they started incorporating dance and other weird rhythms into their music they pretty much lost me. So read the rest of the review with that in mind. Some of the songs were short (anything under 5 minutes is short for PIL) and some were almost unbearably long and monotonous. Johnny still has a very strong voice, but I have to admit that his weird singing style bugs the hell out of me. It’s like he’s putting on a fake, operatic voice for 2 hours. Of course he’s had a very successful career doing this for 40 years, so what do I know, but if you listen to Metal Box: he doesn’t sound like that at all! As for how he looks, well I’m sure that you have all seen the recent photos of Johnny looking VERY bloated and sickly, but happy to report he looked much healthier in person. But with the glasses and buttoned up old-man raincoat he looked more Albert Tatlock than Glen Matlock. On stage he would alternate drinking from a water bottle and a whiskey bottle (I assume), and he also has a garbage can by the drum riser for him to spit into. And onstage he has a music stand with his book of lyrics on it. As for the other musicians in the band, well they were quite brilliant and managed to translate the complex arrangements and multiple instruments to a live setting amazingly well. I was gobsmacked at how well they pulled it off.
At times I was bored and at times I was totally engaged. I’d say that I enjoyed it overall and I’m glad I went although musically it didn’t do much for me. Standing there for 2 hours I learned that I’m much more at home at a “conventional” 3 chord punk show. Now, that probably says more about me than it does about PIL but that’s fine. I’m very glad that an experimental band like this still exists, and I’m very happy that a true pioneer in our genre still feels sufficiently enthused to perform. But if you go to this tour, don’t be expecting a lot of joviality from Johnny or for them to beak into “GSTQ”, and do expect a lot of long, long songs. And go pee before you find your place.
Public Image Limited