It was one year ago to the day that I saw Pet Shop Boys and their Electric Tour in San Diego… and while the “show” was mostly the same on this 2014 tour, kicking off at Fox Theater in Oakland, my own personal experience was worlds apart. The actual concert itself was the same as last year’s, with the exception of I think just one change to the setlist, but that is actually a good thing – why mess with near perfection? While there are a few favorites of mine I would have loved to have heard, the highly prolific duo have been making hits for over three decades now, so there will always be some songs that aren’t going to make the cut for every tour. As with last year, the avant-garde stage production is of the highest order, with credit also due to Stuart Price with his music production and programming, Creative Director/Designer Es Devlin and Stage Director/Choreographer Lynne Page, the two colorful dancers (Merry Holden and Tom Herron) with their interesting costumes and stage presence, and many others behind the scenes. This show was their first of 2014, and at one point Neil even confessed to having some nerves in coming back on the stage, but his voice and delivery was spot on, and the blending of old and new music maybe even works better the second time around. It was one of my favorite shows last year, and it was great to revisit it as well as share it with someone very special in my life this time around – it is a concert that I will never forget (more on that later)!
Who: Pet Shop Boys
Supporting: DJ Omar Perez (Popscene)
Venue: Fox Theater
Where: Oakland, California
Promoter: Another Planet Entertainment
When: April 8, 2014
Seating: General Admission Standing (VIP with Meet & Greet and Early Entry, Standing Front Row Center)
As this is somewhat of a “revisit” of my last review of this tour, I’ve borrowed from my prior article where appropriate.
The duo, comprised of course of Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, have been two of the smartest creatures in pop music since they emerged, breaking into the mainstream with the Stephen Hague version of “West End Girls” and accompanying music video. That video, for me as an unworldly 12-year old, not only introduced me to this band with an incredibly engaging and original sound, but to a new and different world: England.
I’m now 41, and I’ve been to England and London in particular quite a bit in the past several years (one of my favorite places on Earth), and every time I visit I hear Pet Shop Boys music come alive, moving from my subconscious to the forefront of my mind, and those panning and fading images from the “West End Girls” video come vibrantly alive from my memories. It’s funny, because I’ve unwittingly found myself in a few of those locations.
In fact, I was just in London last week, and took my girlfriend with me to my favorite city in the world, and even remarked on some of this as we walked the streets of the city.
Unlike some British artists, Neil does not lose his English accent with his singing. They fully embrace and celebrate their heritage, and were part of the musical movement that made English music cooler than American, on balance, during the New Wave era.
The other thing that is fascinating to me about that video is how the two had a style and image all their own, from the very first days, that has been consistent throughout their careers.
While contemporaries Depeche Mode were, let’s face it, kind of dorky-looking and decidedly not “fast fashion” in their early days (until Anton Corbijn became involved), Pet Shop Boys have always had a solid and consistent identity from the start – an edgy and confident sort of geek professionalism. It is amazing how it has endured and matured going on nearly 30 years now. And in the past decade, not only has synth/electornic-based music become cool in the eyes of the mainstream, so has geek. I would say that they weren’t ahead of their time so much as they were just cool being what came naturally to them. Authentic.
Among their peers, only three other artists, in my opinion, maintained such distinctive stylings with all things related to their respective bands – Depeche Mode and their aforementioned collaborations with Anton Corbijn, Peter Saville’s with New Order, and of course everything pertaining to The Smiths.
Another interesting thing about Pet Shop Boys is that they were at the forefront of technology back in the 80s, and have really remained pioneers on that up through to today. And while of course many associate their 80s hits with that decade, it does not in any way sound dated. They were instrumental in developing an entire new way of making music that was way ahead of its time, and it is only in recent years that the industry has come back around to trying to emulate what they’ve done quite consistently for many decades now.
Pet Shop Boys are truly the progenitors and godfathers of the wide variety of electronic/synth-based music that has followed. Honestly, I think had Pet Shop Boys not done what they did, when they did it, it would have had a significant impact on the music that is prospering today.
With this latest concert tour, Pet Shop Boys and their inventiveness, style, and perfectionism is on full display on the stage. Just as their music is perfectly arranged and produced, so, too, are their live shows.
It’s funny, because “over produced” is a term that is used to describe an artist’s album in a negative way, and their is this general view that carefully produced albums have no soul and grit. I would say of all the music that I listen to, Pet Shop Boys have more than anyone mastered the art of working that element of the recording process to perfection.
As an example, I remember when my older sister got her first “impressive” car stereo back in the day, and the album that was used by her and her friends as the absolute car stereo reference was Introspective. Not only was it electronic synthpop, it was both dance and orchestral.
Speaking of Introspective, it was an album that was just so different in a variety of ways in relation to how albums were “supposed” to be… for starters, it was only six songs. Was it an especially long EP, or an album? And everything was cut at radio-unfriendly lengths (the shortest being 6:15 and the longest being 9:24).
But Pet Shop Boys never seemed interested about doing things standard. They seem to be authentic “artists”, in the traditional sense of the word, and looking at their music catalog, nothing strikes me as a compromise nor cash in. And with them, it’s never just about the music, but the look, in its many forms (album covers and artwork, videos, live shows, wardrobe, etc.).
At the heart of it though, the music has to work. And Pet Shop Boys is one of those rare groups that inherently understands pop music, and can come up with those catchy, hooky, songs that you immediately love and want to play and hear over and over, and it never gets stale. They are also grounded enough to tackle songs written and performed by others, coming up with legendary takes on the works of others with their amazing cover songs.
The genesis of this tour is their new studio album, Electric, which was released last summer.
The 2013 version of this tour was their first set of shows in the U.S. in more than four years, so it seemed to be a quick and easy sell out in most cities, and, in fact, some extra nights were subsequently added in certain cities.
While they played Fox Theater in Oakland twice last year, I had a conflict with other shows, so I ended up seeing that tour in San Diego at Copley Symphony Hall.
Last year I purchased the special package through the band, that included a meet and greet with Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant. It was an awesome experience, and when this new tour was announced, I thought it would be a fun experience to share with my girlfriend, Shelley.
Well, a lot has happened since I first purchased that package, and I had planned to propose to her this week… and decided that maybe it would be fun to do it during the meet and greet with Pet Shop Boys.
Last year, the meet and greet was different from most I’ve done (and I’ve done quite a few), as they brought individuals and groups (fan choice) into private meetings with Neil and Chris in the theater, before the show.
My thoughts were, if this was to be done the same way this year, it just might work…
When we arrived at the venue Tuesday night, there was a pretty impressively long line for the meet and greet group. And, as I hoped, it ended up being private meet and greets again.
I really wanted to wait until I was inside the theater, for the meet, before deciding, to make sure it “felt” right.
As was my experience last year, Neil and Chris were very warm and welcoming. I pulled out a few things I brought along for autographs – some vinyl and prints of some photos I took at the show last year. They were very chatty and I was trying to segue the conversation into my proposal, but not having much luck at first!
Ultimately, I explained that when I met them six months ago, I was single, and now I’ve since met a wonderful woman who was now with me meeting them… and that they have provided some of the songs to the soundtrack of my life – going back to when I was a kid – and some of their love songs served as optimistic to me. Well, Chris turned to Neil and said something to the effect of his feeling that they weren’t all that optimistic, which made me laugh, but at that point I just went for it, and got down on one knee and explained to Shelley that she was going to get the short version, and the longer version later. She and Neil and Chris were all quite surprised, but she said yes (and the ring fit), and Neil initiated a group hug to celebrate, and they said that was a first for them.
Neil was kind enough to take a photo of Shelley (my fiancé) and I together, just moments later:
When we went back outside to line-up for the early entry back into the venue for the concert, we ran into two of our friends and shared the news, so it was all quite exciting.
Getting back to my review of the concert… the early entry line for the GA floor proved to be quite small, and once inside, we ended up front row in front of the stage, just slightly to the right.
Last year, Jacques Lu Cont supported, but he never took the stage. Last night, DJ Omar Perez opened with a 45 minute or so long set at center stage, which got the place filled out and moving, and that was followed by a short video for their new song, “Oppressive (The Best Gay Possible)”, which is based on a speech by Rory O’Neill aka Panti Bliss.
The rest of the show was I think fairly close to last years, with a swap of “Love Is a Bourgeois Construct” in place of “Memory of the Future”.
Since it is a very complex show with lighting and staging, I don’t image the set list has changed much, if at all, show to show, so presenting that here gives an idea of how the concert was framed:
- One More Chance
- A Face Like That
- Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)
- Love Is a Bourgeois Construct
- I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing (with The Rite of Spring sample)
- I’m Not Scared
- West End Girls
- Somewhere (Leonard Bernstein cover)
- Love Etc.
- I Get Excited (You Get Excited Too)
- It’s a Sin
- Domino Dancing
- Always on My Mind (Brenda Lee cover)
- Go West (Village People cover)
- Vocal / It’s Alright
As this tour is introducing fans to the new music from Electric, it is interesting to see which songs are played live… “Axis”, “Florescent”, “Thursday [feat. Example] (who appears on the screen behind them on stage), and “Vocal”. So that is not very many songs out of a mix of around two dozen.
On the other hand, they have been very prolific throughout their career, so they can’t hit all the favorites, though they do a pretty good job picking and choosing what to play.
The show opened in a bath of brilliant orange light… almost like an unnatural sunset, which morphed into a circuit board, before being virtually launched into a high tech tunnel (that reminded me of Jeff Minter’s Tempest 2000 for the short-lived Atari Jaguar). Forward movement. Felt appropriate enough, as they are artists that have seemingly been on an unrelenting, forward trajectory throughout their careers… a journey. Only last night, they took us with them.
The first two songs were done from behind a giant screen, kind of like a tease of equal proportions. The whole night was building, building…
It was really a spectacular sequence, with image and music married to one another in perfect unison.
Much of the pair’s wit and genuine irreverence could be determined by the many wardrobe changes and costumes worn by the pair of dancers who accompanied them on stage maybe a third to half the time.
No song was wasted, in terms of how it was tackled for this tour, or the theme and visual accompaniment song to song. Their concerts are more like a mix of music concert and theater, though it is all about the music. Of course, Chris had nothing to say, as per his persona with the band, and Neil did not say too much himself.
But that going for a ride visual metaphor could not be more apt, in that from end to end, the show was a non-stop dream confection for eyes and ears.
I think my favorite bit of the night, in terms of the on stage theatrics, was for “Love Etc.”, wherein Neil and Chris were rolled out on what looked like separate beds set vertical, each tucked into their white sheets up to their necks. A stage hand set the mic in place for Neil, and the song unwound as twitchy, unworldly bodies were projected on the screens below their heads, making for a funny and quirky, cartoon-like version of the duo, though with “real” heads. Made me wonder if maybe they should make a special appearance at the Tate.
As with last year, I still count this as one of the must tours of the year. Brilliant.
I know from my personalized experience, I will certainly never forget the Pet Shop Boys concert at Fox Theater on April 8, 2014!
Below are some photos of Pet Shop Boys performing on stage… since I was making this show a personal engagement, I skipped shooting under photo pass with my pro equipment this time around, and instead shot some photos with non-pro pocket cameras from standing at the front (click on any image for higher resolution versions of each photo):