By Jeff Walsh
I remember the first time I saw The Pet Shop Boys in concert nearly a decade ago, after only knowing their music. I seriously wondered what sort of crazy world I stepped into. Neil Tennant seemed to be walking down a ramp in slow-motion while singing a song with an orange fright wig on his head (Chris Lowe wore the same fright wig on the keyboards), and nearly every other song had some visual element attached to it. I expected a normal concert, and got craftsmanship, so it was a lot to absorb at once. It was all just so thought out and artfully constructed. And none of the elements were just distraction, filler, or nonsense happening on a screen behind him that didn't matter.
It was rare to see a show where the performer seemed humbled to be present, yet made no effort to break a sweat, content to let the words and music create the magic of the live event. Even the most upbeat songs worked up the crowd, but not the band. But this was the band known for ironic detachment, so it all made sense.
Of course, seeing them again tonight in San Francisco (a decade later than my first PSB concert, and 25 years since their first hit single, West End Girls was released) I knew what to expect, and they didn't disappoint.
The visual design of the stage reminded me of Pink Floyd's The Wall, only the Pet Shop Boys used the simplicity of the white cubes to continually rearrange the combined stage and screen to great effect, whereas Floyd actually built the wall between the band and the audience back in the 70s (I didn't see that show, I'm not *that* old, although putting Floyd putting the wall between them and the audience reinforced the alienation theme of the album).
For The Pet Shop Boys, the wall was sometimes a flat screen, staircase, dancing platforms, you name it. The 'cube' theme was reinforced with the band and the backup singers wearing multi-colored cubes on their heads for the duration of the opening song, Heart. Tennant (who is openly gay, btw) made it through the set with multiple/quick costume changes, including a tuxedo for one song, while two dancers in red dresses punctuated the perfect moment.
The set was a nice mix of new and old songs, with Tennant gesturing obviously to his surroundings during the opening strains of their Village People cover 'Go West,' about moving to California for a better life. The band also did their Willie Nelson cover 'Always On My Mind,' and a surprising cover of Coldplay's 'VIva La Vida,' with Tennant strolling around the stage with a crown and cape. Some of my favorite songs 'Can You Forgive Her?' 'New York City Boy,'Suburbia,' 'Se A Vide E,' and 'Being Boring' also found their way onto the set list, before they closed the show with 'West End Girls.' They also played several cuts from their most recent, and altogether enjoyable album, 'Yes.'
After attending some recent big shows like Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews (ick) and Pink, it was interesting to see a show where the visuals were an integral part of the experience, and not just live video of the performer up close. I've been making a conscious effort at recent shows to avoid looking at the screens, because I don't want to pay to see a concert and essentially watch television, but in this case the video was never live, thankfully. Plus, you really couldn't avoid it. It was projected nearly onto the band, dancers, and backup singers, and consisted of animation, video, and other random imagery.
The Pet Shop Boys have contributed a lot of tracks to the soundtrack of my life, and never enough of them seem to show up in their concerts, but to see a 25-year-old band that is so gracious, driven, and committed to advancing its unique sound, art, and vision is always inspiring. And, seeing them in concert just makes you want to listen to so many of their songs again, both to rediscover them, and to connect with the moments in your life in which they play a part.
To see a lot of amazing photos from this tour, check out the Brooklyn Vegan site.