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Friday Night: Public Image Ltd. at Scout Bar

Public Image Ltd. Scout Bar November 2, 2012

Not many shows remind you that sound has actual, physical mass, but Public Image Ltd. sure did Friday. Mass, as in something tangible and discernible, with density and volume.

Especially volume. But don't count out density.

Yes, I'm talking about some Albert Einstein-type shit, but I think John Lydon could dig it the same way Einstein would have dug Lydon's neon orange suspenders Friday. Sound is a form of energy, which as Uncle Al discovered, is a product of mass and acceleration. Eureka!

Friday, PiL played 15 songs in two (very) solid hours. The foursome didn't let up until "Open Up," the single Lydon cut in 1993 with UK progressive-house pioneers Leftfield, had throbbed for several minutes. But at that point it was a little tough to measure time accurately. This show made my teeth hurt, and may have loosened a filling.

Lydon is arguably the most famous original punk rocker still alive, but there was precious little punk rock in what PiL played Friday. Not punk rock in the Circle Jerks-ish one-two-three-four style many people associate with punk rock, and as practiced by (perfectly fine) openers Dykes on Bikes. This was dense, difficult, and very deliberate, unsettling as hell and yet somehow irresistible.

If a lot of what Lydon's band -- Lu Edmonds (guitar), kilt-clad Scott Firth (bass) and Bruce Smith (drums) -- played wasn't improvised, it might has well have been, which of course probably means it was calculated down to the eighth note. During more a kaleidoscopic succession of sonic abstractions than anything you and I know as rock and roll "songs," Stevens put a couple of of exotic-looking instruments -- an electric sitar/lute, and a banjo-ish thing he played with a bow at one point -- through a series of paces that would have made most Marine drill sergeants ask him to let up.

But he also periodically switched over to a (gorgeous) hollowbody guitar, and the aural damage was just as severe. It might be easier to describe the colors of the stage lights during each song than to try to describe what it sounded like, except that they were all of a piece, alien and abrasive yet sensual and tactile. Generally, it creeped me out.

Bathed in red light, "Religion," the last song before the encore, really did seem like some kind of dark rite or incantation as Lydon intoned about "the priests are coming... lock up your children..." as all of this glowering cacophony was going on. No dummy, he did not end the song without taking a moment to direct the crowd's attention to Walter, the man at the soundboard.

But you know what? That's OK. The yin to Stevens' yang came from Firth and Smith, as air-tight a rhythm section as I've heard in I don't know how long. The "Peter Gunn" pulse of "Albatross" was relentless and stretched past ten minutes (again, I think) while the frequent diversions into reggae ("Warrior," "Reggie Song") both helped lighten the mood and engaged the crowd's spinal columns. And "USLS-1" plumbed about as deep a dub line as you could imagine; any deeper, and Firth might have struck oil. Smith simply didn't skip a beat all night, nor did he try to force the beat either.

And then we come to Lydon. He's surely doing exactly what he wants (I hope so), and said as much when PiL left the stage for good. Still, the world probably lost a great Shakespearean actor when he decided to go into music. With his expressive hand movements and exaggerated facial expressions, it was easy to picture Lydon picking up a skull in Hamlet or waving a dagger around like in that Robin Williams bit where John Wayne does Macbeth. I could see the whites of his eyes from the back of the club.

Carefully, all night long, Lydon coaxed the crowd along until we would have all followed him into the depths of hell -- a lucky thing, because by the end of "Religion," that's exactly what this show felt like. The kind of hell you never want to leave.

Personal Bias: I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't this. On so many fronts.

The Crowd: A true all-ages show, from pimply kids with Liberty spikes to gothy folks who looked like they were there the first night Numbers opened its doors.

Overheard In the Crowd: BASS. BASS. BASS.

Random Notebook Dump: This show came up through the floor.

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