Public Image Ltd: Rebellion, slightly aged, at the Fonda Theatre

Public Image Ltd at the Fonda Theatre (Photo by Maximilian Ho)
Public Image Ltd at the Fonda Theatre (Photo by Maximilian Ho)

A bona fide music icon for more reasons than one, John Lydon and his live stage assault are not to be passed up no matter what the old chap happens to be doing. The snot-soaked anarchist he popularized with the Sex Pistols might be the persona that endeared us all to him, and will endure after he’s long gone, but the smart-ass — and introspective — elder statesmen he’s been for much longer is equally compelling and might be just as influential in the big picture.

Fronting Public Image Ltd, Lydon left his Rotten raging behind to experiment in artier but no less audacious ways. PiL’s show on Sunday night at the Fonda Theatre, in support of their  2015 release “What the World Needs Now,” delivered sonically as it pitted Lydon’s warbling wails against pummeling bass lines and hypnotic, shamelessly dancey grooves. PiL’s music can be weird. Wonderfully weird. And that’s before Lydon even gets involved lyrically and vocally. To call it post-punk is over simplifying; PiL make the kind of uncomfortable yet engrossing music one would expect from an aged rebel. But it goes beyond that as well: satirical, even mocking at times, but refreshingly unjaded too.

His vocal style isn’t for everyone. It can grate at times, but to Lydon’s credit, even the grate comes with gratification. His is one of the most distinctive voices in music, after all, and though there were brief moments when the cadence and pitch veered into manic Ethel Merman territory, for the most part, it enraptured, a bludgeoning of operatic shrieks and dramatic, repetitive chants and intonations.

When this works, it really works. “This Is Not A Love Song” for example, came off as darker and deeper than it ever does on the radio thanks to some arrangement tweaks, while tracks like “Death Disco,” “The Body” and “Religion” were intense and vociferous both instrumentally and vibe-wise.

Lydon wasn’t quite as chatty or catty as he is known to be. He alluded to being tired and maybe ill at one point  (“What’s a bit of bronchitis among friends?”), but he was his usual cantankerous yet charming self when he did speak, mainly before leading into the brilliant hooks and valleys of the band’s biggest hit, “Rise,” for the encore. Clearly anger is still an energy for Lydon and PiL, and it should be. The world is in many ways as bleak as he warned when he sang “Time Zone – World Destruction” with Afrika Bambaataa (which he didn’t do last night).  “I’m not going away any fucking time soon,” Lydon promised, but after the forceful set he turned in last night, we already knew that.

Photos by Maximilian Ho