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."
The night was winding down, and a few more songs were left to play, but Lydon had more to give his disciples. He closed the song with a groaning, "Amen, amen, amen... " And then the sermon was complete.
"This Is Not a Love Song"
"Flowers of Romance"
"Out of the Woods"