Let's make lots of money

"Chris Lowe on keyboards. I'm Neil Tennant. We are the Pet Shop Boys." The crowd went nuts. And the usually stoic Lowe cracked a smile. The comment marked the end of second half of their concert at the Warfield in San Francisco, which was characterised by noisy and harsh electronics, an aggressive and intense techno/dance beat, all balanced by an excellent and emotionally-charged pop song writing and music aesthetic.

Most people are familiar with Pet Shop Boys' West End Girls a tune from an hitherto unknown band which catapulted them to stardom. In some ways, they never reached that level of fame again, but the boys are definitely not one-hit wonders. Since 1986's Please, they've produced solid albums such as Actually, Introspective, and Behaviour all containing songs that are consistently excellent. Unfortunately, I stopped following them after 1993's Very which was also an album with a whole bunch of great tunes. And from the concert, it looks like their follow up releases, Relentless, Bilingual, and Nightlife (released last month) maintain the same high calibre of composition found in their previous releases.

All their music, except the vocals, is done primarily through the use of a synthesiser (initially the Emu Emulator). And true to form, the concert had only Lowe in charge of the music with no backing instrumentalists. One may expect that a concert based on sequenced music would sound similar to the studio material, but that wasn't the case. Each song was tweaked and played around with in a novel and innovative manner. And in retrospect, it makes a lot of sense: it's much easier to modify sequences than to modify a rehearsed live performance. To the Pet Shop Boys' credit, the modifications didn't detract in any way whatsoever from the original tunes and only enhanced it.

The songs they played included West End Girls, Can You Forgive Her?, Being Boring, What Have I Done to Deserve This?, Left to My Own Devices, Young Offender, Always on My Mind, Opportunities, It's a Sin and for the encore they came back with It's Alright and Go West, a great cover of a classic Village People tune. They also played a bunch of songs I didn't recognise offhand but loved anyway, including For Your Own Good, New York City Boy and Vampires from the new album. Like I said, tunes like West End Girls, Can You Forgive Her? and It's a Sin were significantly altered resulting in "new" versions of these songs.

The stage design was futuristic and very novel, and the projection, lights (especially the use of bright white light), and smoke was entertaining---perhaps something to experience under the influence of a mind-altering substance, but given my fondness for their music, it would probably have detracted from the overall experience. One of the highlights of the show was the duet What Have I Done to Deserve This? with Dusty Springfield, who passed away in March of this year. For this tune, Tennant sang along with a video of Springfield singing (with her sampled voice coming in at the appropriate times). The band had five backup singers, and the female black singer was amazing. While the mix wasn't perfect, she definitely enhanced a lot of the tunes with her powerful voice and provided a stark contrast to Tennant's vocal style. There were some amusing and interesting choreographed scenes involving the singers.

I was amazed by the aggressiveness and intensity of the music, reminiscent of a thrash metal concert (one of the kinds of music I listen to most and love) even though I expected this to a certain degree. The show opened with strange electronic noises, and throughout the noise served as a background to the danceable pop music. The strong bass gave the songs a dance/techno flavour. While the set design, the demeanor of the boys, the relentless pounding beat, and the electronic nature of the music may give the appearance of "coldness", the songs themselves were melodic and emotional, and this is one of the reasons I really like the music.

The crowd response was tepid at the beginning, but progressed as the show went on, and by the end the crowd were jumping around. Surprisingly enough, most were familiar with the material up to the new album. I moved to the back and was dancing throughout the entire show, while enjoying the emotional appeal of the music.

This was my first time at the Warfield, an old theatre converted into a concert hall, and it's a pretty decent venue. The acoustics were decent. There are some good seats in the balcony but it does make it hard to move around unless you to move to the back. The Warfield is also a place where it's hard to get a "bad" seat if you're on the balcony.

I've seen a lot of good shows in my time, and the concert by the Pet Shop Boys definitely ranks among the best. I highly recommend checking them out on this tour, which is the first U.S. one they've done since 1999 (though Tennant said they would try to come back in less than eight years). As usual, I bought my ticket just before the show from a scalper, found great parking, and didn't have to wait too long to see the band I wanted to see (there were no opening bands). A perfect evening out.

Music ramblings || Ram Samudrala || me@ram.org || November 3, 1999