John Lydon cast his eyes heavenward during the excoriating set-closer "Religion" Monday night.
Charisma was a given. So was that voice, cutting like a buzzsaw or keening over waves of guitar and thudding bass and drums. But the modest crowd who turned out Monday to see Public Image Ltd. at Mill City Nights were treated to the sight of former Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon in an unanticipated persona: Charmer.
When he took the stage at 9:20 p.m., only a few minutes later than the announced showtime, Lydon thanked the audience for their patience. Maybe he was referring to the fact that 23 years had passed since PiL last played the Twin Cities, or that the Pistols bypassed Minnesota on both of their reunion tours.
No matter. Lydon and his seasoned band -- about two-thirds of the ways through a U.S. tour behind their first album in a decade, "This Is PiL" -- made a strong case for themselves as post-punk prophets without honor. ("In three years time, somebody else will be copying what we're doing now, and they'll walk off with all the accolades," Lydon told the Star Tribune ruefully in a recent interview. "That's the story of my life.")
In his spiky mini-mohawk, drooping red suspenders and a capacious two-toned shirt that made him look a bit like "Batman's" Two-Face, Lydon was very much the picture of a punk elder statesman. He exhorted the sleepy crowd to make some noise as guitarist Lu Edmonds and drummer Bruce Smith -- both veterans of the late-'80s edition of the band -- and new bassist Scott Firth powered through a hard-grooving set that lasted more than 2 hours.
Starting with the 1984 semi-hit "This Is Not a Love Song," PiL ranged through its catalogue, including four songs from the new album and two from 1979's fabled "Metal Box." (As he wailed through that album's "Albatross," Lydon seemed like an ancient mariner himself, as mossy green light bathed the rope netting that hung behind the stage.)
Several songs showed their pioneering use of worldbeat influences to create dancefloor-ready modern rock. On 1981's "The Flowers of Romance," Lydon wailed like a qawwali singer while Edmonds used a bow to pull strange sounds from his banjo. At other times, the beat was machine-like, exposing the debt owed to Lydon & Co. by such bands as Nine Inch Nails.
The crowd was slow to heat up, but by the encore -- when the early MTV hit "Rise" got some middle-agers moving -- Lydon seemed pleased with what he had wrought. He lingered on stage for a couple minutes as the band drifted away, bestowing smiles on the now-shouting fans and telling them: "Next time, bring your friends."
The set list:
"This Is Not a Love Song"
"Deeper Water" (new)
"One Drop" (new)
"Flowers of Romance"
"Reggie Song" (new)
"Swan Lake" (Death Disco)
"Out of the Woods" (new)
"Open Up" (Lydon’s 1993 single with British electronica act Leftfield)