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Public Image Ltd. Lead a Fiery Sermon in Los Angeles
The piercing sound of John Lydon's voice is still like no other. During Public Image Ltd.'s two-hour concert at Club Nokia in Los Angeles on Sunday night, he sang with a mixture of biting antagonism and real vulnerability, filling the theater with a fiery wail and compelling new songs from the reunited post-punk originators.
Sunday's concert came near the end of the band's three-year touring journey, which included the release this year of This Is PiL, the band's first new album in two decades and a return to form, as Lydon demonstrated in L.A. "We come from chaos/ You cannot change us, " he shouted during the album's "One Drop" against sharply echoing guitar lines of Lu Edmonds. "Cannot explain us/ And that's what makes us."
Dressed in a two-toned shirt, bright orange suspenders hanging behind him, Lydon comfortably mixed his past and present, with song choices stretching back to PiL's 1978 debut, First Issue, recorded shortly after he left the Sex Pistols. The sides of his head were cropped short, leaving a blond tuft of hair on top, and earrings dangled from both sides. Between songs, he soothed his throat by lifting a liquor bottle to his mouth, taking a swig, gargling and spitting it out.
The new album's "Reggie Song" shook from searing guitar with an Arabic flavor as Lydon sang, his hand raised. He grunted his words through a stretched-out "Bags" (from 1986's generically titled Album) over a deep bass rumble with slices of guitar. When a fan slurred back a lyric between songs, Lydon turned with a wicked grin. "With a voice like that, that why I'm up here and you're down there."
The concert was filmed as part of an ongoing documentary project on the band, which Lydon unexpectedly reconvened in 2009 after a long hibernation with the lineup of Edmonds, drummer Bruce Smith and bassist Scott Firth (who also operates the laptop). It was a homecoming for Lydon, who has lived in Los Angeles and Malibu since the Eighties, and he teased locals for cheering not quite loudly enough: "Laid back as usual? That's OK, la la. I live in la la."
Lydon has spent many of the last 20 years working on television, and reunited first with the Sex Pistols in 1996, but he has been unwilling or unable to create new songs with the groundbreaking punk act. His history with PiL is much longer, and it was the outfit in which he expanded and experimented with his voice. The PiL reunion inspired him to write again, and he is already making plans for another album with them.
Onstage in L.A., he came alive in a different way from the Pistols, with a deeper repertoire to draw from. Standing in front of a huge circular "PiL" logo and rope netting, the band ripped through the decades, from 1989's "Disappointed" back to 1979's agonized "Death Disco," as Edmonds played a multitude of string instruments, even sawing a bow against a tear-shaped bouzouki.
Lydon often spoke cryptically to the audience. He noted the impending election by declaring, "Vote for the right one and let it not be in the name of religion," just as Edmonds began the ominous chords from "Religion," an early PiL track from their debut. The anti-religious screed was stretched to epic length and took on extra bite at Club Nokia, reflecting the aftermath of abuse allegations in the Catholic church in recent years. Lydon made that connection overt, too, adding new lyrics to the original: "I fear no evil except for the priests/ Look what they've done/ Lock up your children." The song continued as he introduced the band, calling Edmonds "Jesus Christ" and adding, "The guitar will cleanse your soul." Turning to bassist Firth, he said, "Beelzebub, turn up the bass, turn up the bass."
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"I'm 86 years old," Chuck Berry said after playing a short, raw set at Cleveland's State Theatre late Saturday night. "And I'm happy to be anywhere!"
The crowd was equally ecstatic. Berry traveled to Cleveland for a tribute concert in his honor, which included performers Merle Haggard, Ronnie Hawkins, Darryl "DMC" McDaniels, Joe Bonamassa and Lemmy Kilmister. At the end of the night, Berry accepted the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's American Masters of Music Award, wrapping the Hall of Fame's weeklong celebration of Berry's life. The reclusive Berry seemed to love every minute of his Cleveland stay, spending Saturday afternoon at the Hall of Fame, where he checked out his exhibit with his family and held a rare interview with journalists in a Hall of Fame conference room, praising President Obama and discussing his health.
Chuck Berry Praises Obama, Laments Fading Health
He was in for some surprises. Whether it was DMC retooling "School Days" as a pro-education hip-hop anthem or Haggard putting a twangy spin on "Memphis," the night highlighted just how far Berry's influence reaches. Between performers, classic Berry performance footage was shown on a massive screen and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame President Terry Stewart put the songs in historical context. "[Berry] was a lightning rod," he said. "Rock & roll was still being born and he came out the way he did. Unbelievable."
Setlist-wise, you couldn't go wrong; Berry has one of the greatest catalogs in rock & roll history; vivid, witty storytelling over rollicking rhythm. Seventy-four-year-old Ray Sharpe, who has been recording since the late Fifties, growled a soulful "No Money Down" soaked in Texas twang, backed by the ace house band. Rockabilly revivalist J.D. McPherson howled a loose, chugging "Beautiful Delilah" and bounced across the stage through "Around and Around." "It's ridiculous that I'm here tonight," McPherson said, grinning. The New York Dolls' David Johansen and Earl Slick tore the roof off with a smoky, fuzzed-out take on 1961's "I'm Talking About You" and invited out Ohio's Rick Derringer for a heavy "Back in the U.S.A."
The night rolled on with John Fulbright, who sat at a keyboard and played harmonica on "Downbound Train." Malina Moye played Berry deep cut "Stop and Listen," full of wah-wah and feedback-drenched guitar. The number concluded with Moye by raising her Stratocaster above her head and twirling around in her lengthy dress. It didn't sound anything like Berry, but it made an impression. More fancy fretwork came from Bonamassa, who played a gorgeous, hushed "In the Wee Wee Hours" and a raucous "Oh Carol."
Lemmy Kilmister attacked "Bye Bye Johnny" and "Let It Rock" with his whiskey-soaked growl. Sitting backstage sipping a Jack and Coke in his dressing room, Kilmister said Berry was one of his first heroes. "I liked his attitude. He had that sort of smile on his face and that pencil mustache, sort of a lothario, you know. He's always got that innuendo in the vocals when he's talking about chicks. He was always a horn dog, basically, and so was I."
At 77, Ronnie Hawkins proved he's still a powerhouse showman with "30 Days" and "Roll Over Beethoven," the Hawk whooping and howling during instrumental breaks. San Antonio rockabilly singer Rosie Flores was one of the most impressive acts of the evening, performing endearing, country-flavored takes on "No Particular Place to Go" and "You Never Can Tell." Flores was also the only performer brave enough to playfully attempt a duck walk.
Next to Berry, Merle Haggard was the biggest legend in the room. His set started rocky due to some technical difficulties; there was a pedal board in front of his microphone. "You guys put something in front of me that's not supposed to be here," he said, pointing to the board. "Can you come to move it?" The move made Haggard's guitar short out, and he threw up his arms in frustration. He overcame the problems with his classic "Workin' Man Blues," grinning genuinely at his son Benion's tasteful Telecaster mastery. Next, the duo played a raw "Memphis," Haggard rattling off Berry's lyrics with his axe slung across his back. "It's great to be part of the fanbase of the great Chuck Berry," Haggard said. "Its even better to be asked to play here."
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