NPR logo Review: Public Image Limited At The Crystal Ballroom In Portland

Review: Public Image Limited At The Crystal Ballroom In Portland


The kids don't love Public Image Limited. And the average adult doesn't, either. Never have I been to a show in Portland wherein the majority of the crowd is over 40 and there isn't a hipster in sight. Compare that to other reunion shows — like Gang of Four, whose influence and accessibility has trickled down through the ages, allowing for a crowd full of both diehard flag-bearers and new recruits.

PiL has always been an acquired taste. Fronted by The Sex Pistols' John Lydon, PiL features pummeling bass lines, hypnotic repetition and avant-garde vocals bordering on the atonal. It's post-rock, post-punk, dubbed-out and ecstatic. The music is heavy and largely unforgiving.

Below are clips from PiL at Coachella, where the group had to play opposite Jay-Z, some tough competition:

I first heard PiL in high school, attracted to the stark and industrial iconography of Metal Box and Album. I had never seen PiL live before last night.

In some ways, I'm more compelled to write about the audience than the band. Not because the band wasn't amazing — it was. PiL was tight, with a freight train of a rhythm section (Bruce Smith and Scott Firth) and a metallic guitar sound (Lu Edmonds). There was also fluidity coursing through the songs, a loose groove. But the crowd was just as much the driving force of the night, at least aesthetically, bringing me right back to 1990 in Seattle: Pink-and-purple dreadlocks, black bustier tops paired with skirts, striped tights and platform boots, shaved head/dreadlock combos (a little of this, a little of that), KMFDM and Einsturzende Neubauten T-shirts, trench coats, multiple facial piercings and black lipstick. It was as if someone had taken a flea comb to the city.

But who doesn't love a down-and-dirty show once in a while? With John Lydon threatening to stop playing if we didn't scream louder, posing on stage like a punk-rock scarecrow, staring us down, riling us up, and never losing his sense of humor or gratitude for the fact that we all showed up (or half of us did, as the venue was far from full). We stomped our feet during "Religion" and "Public Image," and we shouted along to the words "Anger is an energy" during "Rise" — even though we didn't sound that angry, given how happy we were to be there. They played nearly an hour of Metal Box. PiL was thumping and relentless, like radio static; like something on the fringe of a melody, just never quite giving in to one. PiL's music is a very calculated and measured explosion, which isn't for everyone — certainly not for people who want a clean, concise and easy pay off. But sometimes, the anticipation is so much better.