14 Sep 2009: Chicago Theater Chicago
The 20th century avant-garde art movement, known as Cubism, depicts images from a variety of viewpoints—abstract figures and objects are disjointed, analyzed and then re-assembled. Obviously, stripped-down Braque and Picasso alone, won’t shake-shake- shake your booty, but perhaps the pop sensibility, the contagious electronic rhythm and gorgeous melodies of UK’s Pet Shop Boys, alongside a pile of pliable cubes will.
Neil Tennant (vocals) and Chris Lowe (pianist) are the writers and brainchildren behind The Pet Shop Boys, who flew up the 1980s charts with “West End Girls”. The duo both held mainstream careers prior to their electronic foray.
Lowe studied architecture at the University of Liverpool, and his flat was even featured in a magazine. Tennant was formerly editor of Brit zine, Smash Hits, before breaking into the electro-pop electronica scene. Tennant, a history buff, wrote a soundtrack to accompany the 1925 silent film, Battleship Potemkin.
Both met at an electronics shop in London in 1981. Serendipity drove their dreams ahead. In 1983 Tenannt met producer Bobby Orlando in New York while interviewing Sting. Orlando went on to produce “West End Girls” which was modeled after Grandmaster Flash’s rap song, “The Message” and inspired by T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land. Layers of billowy synth riffs, an irresistible bass line and lyrics which explored British social-class and inner-city pressures were all hit-producing factors. In 1985 it charted to number one in the UK, then 1986, in the States.
The exciting concert feel was present from the get-go. The elegant, velvet-curtained Chicago Theater, with its royal blue stage lighting, griffins, celestial statues of plaster angels, mural of a Greek God pulling a chariot above the stage, was the perfect venue for tonight’s show—though given the Pet Shop Boy’s persona—what might be viewed by some as historical architecture, might be viewed as camp-kitsch by audience members tonight.
Posers, muscular hunks in tees—some bearing mullets and most with solidly constructed butt cheeks—hipsters and several befuddled tweens mulled around the venue as house music with lyrics such as, “Rich Bitch” and “They struck / what the fuck” peaced out. There were lots of accents drifting in and out of conversations, and they weren’t of the dem and doze school.
While that industrial beat blared, stage hands dressed in white-lab coats and hard-hats tended to 25 giant, white-cubed structures which would soon serve as a backdrop for stage imagery. A colorful video display of colored cubes appeared soon after.
Two slender figures wearing cubes over their heads, clothed in red and blue frocks, and playing tiny brass instruments walk towards a small piano.
Two more figures, their heads also enclosed in large cubes, now enter. One heads toward the keys, the other center-stage.
Tennant wears a black, derby hat, shades, and a black jacket with silver streaks. Lowe wears a black and silver jacket with a black baseball cap. Red hearts pop-up on the backdrop.
“Everytime I see you something happens to me / My heart starts missing a beat,” sings Tennant, his hand playfully emulating a heart leaping from its socket. He then launches into, “Welcome to my life / Did you see me coming,” and the crowd stands up, cocky facial expressions that indicate, “I own this song.”
The Pet Shop Boys have released their tenth album, produced by Xenomania, Yes, and “Pandemonium”, “Love, Etc.” and “All Over the World”, are featured tonight. The tour is aptly entitled, ”Pandemonium.”
The next song brings the audience to their feet. Tennant sings, “Ask yourself if you can even deliver/ Forgive her pandemonium…”
Next, Tennant says, “This song is about Love, Etc.”, and the crowd screams. Visuals such as hearts, shamrocks, trains and flying men, like images out of Monty Python trailers, fill up the screen. Animated banners proclaiming, “we need love” float among them. Tennant sings, “Don’t have to be a big bucks Hollywood star / Don’t have to drive a super car to get far / Don’t have to live a life of power and wealth / Don’t have to be beautiful but it helps.” It’s a rapt performance enriched by the over-stimulating visuals.
Hopefully, you’ve brought clothespins to keep your eyes open. Don’t dare blink—you’ll miss a costume change, floating image or choreographed number. During “Defection” Lowe picks up some mallets while cubes crash to the ground and three dancers follow suit, their body suits smashed against the floor. For, “Why Don’t We Live Together”, male and female dancers do Olympic style movements—shades of the sharp, abrupt “YMCA” choreography. Footage of Olympic flags flash overhead.
The announcement, “Welcome BSBNYZ delighted by” repeats. “United 9” blares. Lowe’s piano is behind an especially built-up tile façade which continually lights up revealing a panoply of color.
Neil sings mournfully, “That’s why we live together / This time we’ll get it right / You may not always find me,” as dancers, now dressed as New York sky scrapers absurdly posture in a penthouse parade.
Images of “Blackpool Pleasure Beach” appear now along with a gigantic roller coaster as Tennant sings, “Give me one more chance to keep you satisfied” as dancers bob up and down. Cheers go up as audience members sing along to the cover, “You Were Always on My Mind”.
“The New York City Boy” is extra punk and four dancers wearing red, yellow, green and purple bodysuits come out—heads inside cubes. Lowe’s jacket looks like it’s decorated with sharp-edged shards of broken glass.
3D teapots, flying bikes and basketballs and images of faces now appear and Tennant strikes a reflective pose. He sings, “Never Been Closer To Heaven” with warm inflection and “Never been further away” as his facial expression softens. Tennant’s voice reflected a surprising clarity and sensitivity to the lyric—a quality that might not have been predicted earlier in the night as he juggled syncopated rhyme schemes against Lowe’s skilled precision on keys.
“I don’t care what she says/ Who’s to judge?” Tennant sings quietly. Lowe performs his only solo of the night. It’s well received and generous, though more would have been better.
Tennant is wearing a black tuxedo, singing, “Do I need to love you?” as two dancers, dressed formally in blood red, waltz. As they dramatically pan the stage, Tennant continues, “Hear the thunder crashing / The sky is dark / And now a storm is breaking inside my heart.” “Domino Dancing” is as beautifully constructed as a runway model’s head to toe debut.
As pictures of urban blight trail across the screen, juxtaposing Tennant’s glam wear, he sings, “Wake up in the morning and there’s still no guarantee,” as Lowe assuages us with escalating piano riffs.
On another ballad, Tennant swoons, “This is the way it used to be/I survive with my memories,” as hypnotic and melancholy melodies swerve, the aftermath of his line, “Trapped in with me” pulses as a wild, interpretative dance envelops. The melody of “The Way It Used to Be” has a plaintive sheen under the panache.
Now, the two impassioned dancers in their pas de deux explore each other’s bodies with their eyes, embrace, tussle and ultimately one ends up on the other’s back as Tennant sings, “I wish I never met you” in the stand-out, dramatic “Jealousy.” Lowe’s keys add the right degree of musical chutzpah to the vignette.
The visuals escalate in weirdness. A conveyor belt with men dressed in suits, of course, their head stuffed into cubes, dominate the screen. Two background dancers come out dressed in suits, as well.
Tennant is back now wearing a black bowler hat and black Nehru jacket. The women take off their cubes, revealing two beautiful blondes.
Neil says, “This is the song – easy and predictable – to say I want you.”
Now, “Viva La Vida” happens. Tennant comes out in full royal regalia, silver crown and black robe, to this Coldplay cover.
Cubes tumble down after a huge crash. Dancers in white body suits react to the pandemonium. Tennant sings, “For everything I longed to do/ Everyplace I’ve been/ It’s a sin/ So pure in thought.”
Mournfully, Tennant utters, “Father, forgive me.” Silver confetti falls from the Chicago Theater heavens and dancers dressed as demons thrash wildly.
The audience cheers. For this encore, Lowe wears blue-green plumes on his head and Tennant wears black.
“We don’t have to be boring / We just have to fight for ourselves,” he sings, in the infectious, “Being Boring” before graciously saying, “Thank you, Chicago, thank you for making us feel at home. Chicago, we love you.”
Images of twirling umbrellas. Newspapers are thrown. A contagious clack-clack follows. The dancers return to their cubes. The hit, “West End Girls” is the final encore of the evening. Shoulders sway to the sing-song exuberance of “West end girls and East end boys”. The story goes that Tennant was inspired by a cryptic James Cagney film performance before he penned this tune.
The visuals of roller coasters, the London tube, urban squalor, hearts bursting off-screen and floating parasols, along with the crispy melodies and neck-bobbing rhythms heard tonight, delightfully excessive costume changes and crashing cubes definitively explored a variety of artistic perspectives. You wonder if this is how Cubists Braque and Picasso might have partied – if their vivid broken-up figurines could have come alive. But, of course, tonight, they did.
// Notes from the Road
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