Whether you favored Blur or Oasis in the ‘90’s Britpop wars (or were wise and went with Suede, or had really seen the light and kicked over some floppy-haired wannabes to stand by Luke Haines) there is little to fault in a Pulp gig. Jarvis Cocker, with his Scott Walker as libidinous extrovert mannerisms and inability to stay at all still, will not phone a live show in. Being that Pulp’s last New York gig was in 1998 and that its return would be at a New York landmark, the stakes for a memorable gig were nearly as high as the need for on-stage gimmickry. Luckily, anything involving Cocker is inclined to be joyously idiosyncratic and Pulp succeeded in treating the crowd to two hours of blissful pop gold.
It’s somewhat of a marvel that Pulp was capable of selling out Radio City Music Hall so rapidly that a second show had to be added. Blur’s “Song Two” will always be bigger than “Common People”. During the time Pulp were finally gaining momentum in England, it still took Cocker getting arrested for stage invading a Michael Jackson performance at the 1996 Brit Awards for yanks to pay attention. Still, as a Cocker obscurity attests, everybody loves the underdog, and so it was that Pulp was the Britpop heavyweight to bring its arch tunes back to the United States for a handful of east and west coast dates.
Those who have attended one of Cocker’s solo performances know what to expect by now: Cocker will demonstrate his spryness and diverge into unusual between song banter while Pulp bassist Steve Mackey stands back and ages incredibly well. The Pulp show on Tuesday night was basically the same, but given the venue and circumstances, gimmicks were monumentally deployed. Perhaps the greatest benefit of playing Radio City was the venue’s excellent lighting and effects. Before Pulp took the stage, a screen with a neon green text scroll flashed rock ‘n’ roll clichés like, “You’re looking good tonight” and more unexpected probes like “Would you like to see a dolphin?” (a question which absolutely delivered).
An early highlight came in “F.E.E.L.I.N.G. C.A.L.L.E.D. L.O.V.E.”, when a troupe of dancers — Cocker deemed them “The Pulpettes” — took the stage for some light interpretive dancing. Cocker later announced the dancers were from the Michael Clark dance company, with whom Cocker performed a brief set (as side project Relaxed Muscle) in the previous week for the Whitney Museum’s biennial celebration. The prop for “I Spy”, was suitably seedier: Cocker whipped out a camera and shot various front row fans with it, in night vision.
Cocker’s experience as a BBC Radio 6 Music host has caused his banter to become less tangential and more educational. Early in the April 10 set, Cocker informed us that The Great Gatsby had been published 87 years ago that day, and proceeded to quote it throughout the night. As with his solo performances, Cocker was sure to bring along treats for the audience, and even attempted to lob a fun-size Snickers bar into the mezzanine section. Keeping with his commoner persona, Cocker was quick to give the nosebleeders props, fretting that they may be suffering from high altitude sickness and ascending the steps along the Radio City walls to taunt the more distant fans with some salacious dancing during “This is Hardcore”. This particular song acted as a definite highlight of the night, and made one wonder why Cocker and co. settled on such a Different Class heavy set (virtually every song, save “Monday Morning”, was played).
Although UK set lists for these reunion gigs revealed surprises here and there, it became apparent early on that Pulp would be doing a greatest hits set; that light show wouldn’t quite have worked with the darker songs on 1998’s This is Hardcore, or a spoken word character study like older track “Inside Susan”. Separations’ “My Legendary Girlfriend” or “Countdown” and His ‘n’ Hers “Lipgloss” would have felt right at home however. Another drawback to a Different Class intensive set meant that the absence of violinist and true eccentric Russell Senior was all the more apparent, particularly on the lovely “Underwear”. A stand-in violinist — who sported a side bang similar to Senior’s signature haircut — fleshed out the songs, but a few hardcore fans must have been mildly disappointed.
The lack of variety in the set list could easily be explained by asserting that Different Class is the Pulp release Americans know best. Although the Different Class singles held a large amount of the crowd captivated, Cocker and the band really came alive when “This is Hardcore” and songs of its era like “Party Hard” and “Like a Friend” were performed. Niggles aside though, 6,000 people spent one Tuesday night witnessing Jarvis Cocker violate Radio City Music Hall, and that memory will live on far longer than any airings of dissent.