Pet Shop Boys Illustrate the Reenergizing Power of Dance Music As Super Tour Hits New York City
"At the end of this strange and significant week, what better place to be than among friends?" Pet Shop Boys' Neil Tennant asked at the top of the British synthpop duo's Saturday (Nov. 12) concert at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.
That oblique reference to the election of the most controversial U.S. president in decades was the evening's only nod to current events, however. Instead of getting topical, the Pet Shop Boys' NYC stop on the Super Tour felt like a pleasurable, if not insular, reprieve from a week filled with anxious uncertainty before and after Nov. 8.
When the deep, intricate bass line of Super highlight "Inner Sanctum" began emanating throughout the venue's impressive soundsystem to kick off the concert, I was reminded of the role dance music has played in people's lives since the late '70s as a conduit for the safe, positive release of nervous energy, in particular for marginalized groups. Disco -- which inspired the Pet Shop Boys' own breed of arty electropop in the early '80s -- was created in New York City by the black and LGBT communities, so it was a fitting full circle moment to watch the British duo help New York City tap into dance music's ability to provide a haven for joyous, temporary personal liberation when the world and future look murky.
The night played like an effulgent celebration of club music from NYC disco to electro house to Detroit techno. To complement the 20-plus song setlist, the Pet Shop Boys unleashed a stunning lights and laser show that, unlike many similar ones, remained visually varied and fresh throughout. The Theater at MSG was engulfed in hallmark clubland visuals, turning the otherwise stately looking venue into something out of mid-eighties Chicago or Detroit. There was a stark white-and-black arcade game aesthetic, a picturesque sunset paired with smoky wide-beam lasers, concentric circles rendered in vibrant greens, blues and pinks, and glowing, multi-colored balloons at the close of the show.
The costume changes, while minimal, were on-point, too. Tennant took the stage in a massive Clockwork Orange-ish headpiece while bandmate Chris Lowe's head was entirely covered in a metallic globe akin to the cover of The Who's Tommy. The robotic purveyors of dance-pop eventually morphed into their more human selves, but the backing band remained in The Day The Earth Stood Still-styled helmets for the majority of the show.
As for the setlist, new album Super was best represented, but given the PSB's consistently high-quality output, the new songs succeeded in moving feet and enthralling the crowd nearly as much as the more iconic classics (and honestly, some of the 21st century songs -- such as 2013's "Love Is a Bourgeois Construct" -- already feel like minor classics in their canon).
Of those long-adored songs, "West End Girls" was delivered in the style of its most famous version (not the pre-Please hip-hop-styled original) and "In the Night" from their 1986 collection Disco resembled the infrequently performed original closely enough. Both were wonderful to hear, but the two highlights were undoubtedly "It's a Sin" and "Left To My Own Devices," two "old songs delivered in a new style," according to Tennant. The muscular, lengthy thumping club updates on the '80s songs provided the biggest rush of the night, with the band perfectly straddling the line between reimagining the music in an inventive fashion and delivering the lyrics faithfully enough so that fans could sing along.
Both the initial set and the encore (save for a quick reprise of Super single "The Pop Kids) ended with two of the Pet Shop Boys' hit covers: Village People's "Go West" for the former and "Always on My Mind" (Elvis Presley, Brenda Lee) for the latter. Both elicited full-throated vocal backing from the crowd.
While it would have been nice to hear a song or two from their brilliant '90s LPs Behaviour or a non-cover from Very, it's pointless to quibble over a preferred set list when a 30-something-year-old band knocks out a concert this musically strong.
As the show wrapped and the crowd hit the streets of midtown Manhattan, the admittedly niche Pet Shop Boys audience was spit out from a reassuring dance music haven to a place where disoriented Penn Station tourists bumped into intoxicated revelers who couldn't secure tickets to the Conor McGregor vs. Eddie Alvarez UFC Fight taking place inside Madison Square Garden's main venue that same evening. It was a fairly startling contrast that elicited smirks from a few Pet Shop Boys fans who quickly slipped into the NYC subway system to avoid the stumbling mess outside of MSG and keep the Boys' "Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat" high going for a while longer.