Monday, October 5, 2009

Pet Shop Boys concert review

Photo by Kelly Swift
My review originally appeared in the OC Register

Pet Shop Boys
Where: Greek Theater, Los Angeles
When: Sept. 24

Pet Shop Boys must be obsessed with boxes.

During the last tour in 2006, the stage design revolved around stacked, translucent, multi-functional cubes. It was quite a sight to behold at the marvelous Wiltern gig I witnessed.

Three years later, the veteran London synth-pop duo returned for the theatrical “Pandemonium” concert jaunt with the same show director in tow. The result? More boxes.

On Thursday at the Greek, hundreds of large, white cardboard ones were aligned in rows - ready to be climbed or toppled in dramatic fashion a la Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” Lead singer Neil Tennant and keyboardist Chris Lowe, plus two backing singer/dancers marched onstage to start their performance wearing robot-style costumes, faces obscured by colored cartons.

“Heart” opened the 90-minute proceedings with a dense, bass-heavy sound that was par for the course. Otherwise, the new Stuart Price (Madonna) show mix didn’t seem all that different than album versions, except for a few minor tweaks.

Pet Shop Boys’ latest studio effort “Yes” is one of their strongest in years, containing buoyant dance-pop tunes strategically tinged with Tennant’s trademark melancholy lyrics. Produced/co-written with young in-demand production team Xenomania (Kylie Minogue, Cher, Saint Etienne), the collection features Johnny Marr on guitar/harmonica and was the group’s highest debut since 1993. First single “Love, Etc.” topped Billboard’s dance chart.

A joyous “Did You See Me Coming” was the first of six “Yes” tracks in the L.A. set. Most meshed well with ‘80s and ‘90s hits. The stomping “Pandemonium,” bearing a slight Motown vibe, was an early highlight.

Percolating call and response tune “Love, Etc.,” about superficiality and success, had a deeper resonance in this venue near Tinseltown as Tennant and company sang “don’t have to be a big bucks Hollywood star” and “you need more than…a chauffeur driven limousine on call.”

While the visual presentation kept with Pet Shop Boys’ stylized aesthetic, watching the four singer/dancers’ in box head garb got old really fast. Scampering about in cardboard Empire State Building cutouts for “Why Don’t We Live Together” was akin to a junior high play. Thankfully, they “broke out” occasionally to do normal routines. A lovers spat during “Jealousy” was particularly effective.

Several songs bore snatches of other PSB songs (“Domino Dancing,” “Opportunities,” “Can You Forgive Her?”). Not quite medleys, they confused a number of fans that started singing along and realized it was actually something else. The absence of soulful singer Sylvia Mason-James (a regular on previous tours) was definitely felt in the weak backing vocals at the Greek.

Tennant, for his part, came across fine, even without electronic enhancement. Music partner Lowe stoically stood at the banks of keyboards and banged on electronic drums. He emerged for a rare mini-dance routine (!) before the group’s spirited take on Willie Nelson/Elvis Presley hit “Always on My Mind.” The crowd – largely made up of gay men – were whipped into a frenzy and continued on party hearty, hi-NRG “New York City Boy.”

Diehard followers were treated to some old gems (the Kraftwerk-styled “Two Divided by Zero” from 1986’s “Please,” the elegant “Do I Have To”). The last half hour found Tennant and Lowe elevating the intensity level with the rousing “Suburbia” and a trio of life-affirming tunes: “All Over the World,” tropical “Se a Vida e” and surprising thumping dance cover of Coldplay’s “Vida La Vida,” with Tennant clad in robe and crown.

“It’s a Sin” proved to be a vibrant and sizzling main set closer; the somber “Being Boring” was an unusual choice for encore, followed by the remixed No. 1 hit/PSB signature song “West End Girls." A mixed bag, the show didn't quite measure up to previous SoCal appearances.

Heart/Did You See Me Coming/Pandemonium/Love, Etc./Building a Wall/Go West/Two Divided by Zero/Why Don’t We Live Together/Always On My Mind/New York City Boy/Left To My Own Devices/Do I Have To/King’s Cross/The Way It Used To Be/Jealousy/Suburbia/All Over the World/Se a Vida e/Viva La Vida*/It’s a Sin
Encore: Being Boring/West End Girls

*Coldplay cover

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