Live Review: PiL & Meryl Streek – O2 Ritz Manchester Sept 22nd 2023

The warrior returns but is he fighting the wrong people?

John Lydon has history with Manchester. The two Free Trade Hall gigs with his band Sex Pistols, back in the summer of 1976. Those spawned a whole host of punk and thereafter, post-punk bands and of course the bands first live TV performance on Tony Wilson’s Granada TV show, “So It Goes”.

There’s a good crowd in the Ritz for PiL tonight, noticeably bigger than last year’s show. Perhaps it’s on the back of the new album “End Of The World”, their first new material for 8 years, which is something of a curate’s egg, but more of that later. Tonight I’ve got my 16yr old son Tom, in tow as he’s just discovered PiL and he’s palpably excited about the prospect of hearing at least some of Metal Box played live.

Opening proceedings tonight, and pulling in the punters early, is Dublin’s Meryl Streek. Having wowed the crowd at YES earlier in the year, and seeing his amazing performance at Rebellion Festival, where despite being the closing act on the last night, he managed to attract a decent gathering, it was going to be interesting to see how he went down.

Manchester is a very Irish city, a bit like Liverpool, so slagging off the Catholic church can go one of two ways. His debut album 796,a reference to the number of children’s bodies found buried in a septic tank, at the St. Mary’s Mother & Baby home in Tuam, Ireland, confronts the church head on, whilst finding time to highlight everything currently blighting the Emerald Isle. This is one very angry young man, yet off-stage he is disarming and quiet, Meek even!

He bounds on stage in pitch darkness carrying a torch and mic. Many of the audience seem to mistake him for a roadie making last minute adjustments, but the second the backing track to The Start kicks in he’s up and doing laps of the stage, self-illuminating, spitting bars in that unmistakeable Dublin drawl. He flits in and out of his own self-created shadows, animalistic, searching for something out in the darkness. The sampled TV news broadcasts, marking a Papal visit, underpinned by an understated off kilter drum and bass pattern, morph and distort as the phrase “Ireland was once one of the most Catholic countries on earth, but not anymore” hints at Meryl’s first vocal contribution to the proceedings. Full Of Grace explodes and the first few rows start to nod their heads. Meryl live is a phenomenal performer. This is as punk rock as it gets. Forget leather jackets and Mohicans, acts like Meryl, Benefits and Venn Records label mates, Bob Vylan are the real deal in 2023. Perhaps Lydon identifies with that spikiness in him, that he himself once demonstrated as a young man, hence the tour support. Maybe not, who knows? Bob Vylan, polarised the crowd on a recent support slot with Generation Sex at the Apollo, but I needn’t have worried about the Ritz crowd as they took him to their hearts. True to form he finds himself in the crowd towards the end of the set, even getting one fan to hold his lighting rig for him. Mixed in with the standout tracks from 796, we are given a glimpse into the second album with If This Is Life and Paddy a song about his late uncle. Forget Sleaford Mods, they can’t hold an altar candle to Meryl. He’s back in Manchester on 16th Feb next year. Go and get your ticket now before it’s too late.

Set List: The Start, Full Of Grace, Yesterday, Death To The Landlord, Matter Of Fact, Demon, Educated Mates, Suicide, Paddy and If This Is Life.

All Images Copyright of Andi Callen Photography/@punker1962

And so, to Public Image Ltd. He’s had a rough time of it recently, losing his wife Nora earlier this year as a result of Alzheimer’s disease, but Lydon isn’t about to give up and go quietly. The new album End Of World, is musically some of the best work they’ve produced since 1992’s That What Is Not, the last to feature the late John McGeoch on guitar, (another Manchester connection pop pickers) and certainly the best by this line-up, since Lydon reformed the band in 2009. Apparently, he did ask Wobble to rejoin, but Jah wasn’t offered enough money and disagreed with the choice of tour venues. Every day’s a school day!

It must be hard to put together a set-list spanning 45 years and 11 albums, when most people would be just as happy with the whole of Metal Box and the “hits”. Live Lydon likes to change up the older songs and Memories, Poptones, Albatross and even Flowers Of Romance, get a slightly mellower treatment from the recorded versions. Perhaps in an acknowledgment of ageing, there’s a music stand front and centre, supporting a folder of the lyrics, of which he occasionally turns over the leaves. It doesn’t detract from the entertainment and it’s questionable just how much it’s needed.

There’s certainly no discernible stuttering or missed cues. He cuts a fine figure in a voluminous grey pinstripe suite, accessorised with a natty red and gold tartan kipper tie. He comments on the extra timber he’s accumulated since his last visit, but he’s visibly sharper than he was at his most bloated.

He’s grinning that trademark Rotten smile as he launches into Penge, the opening track of the new album, which I’m sure is likely to become a staple of the live set in years to come, assuming he still has the appetite for it at approaching 70. The rumbling bass heralds the arrival of Albatross, the vocals noticeably lower in range from the original, but with more substance. This line-up have been together 14 years now and are incredibly tight, but you’re left in no doubt as to whose show this is. Lou Edmonds and Scott Firth are tucked further back than a sumo wrestler’s balls in winter, whilst Lydon takes centre stage. Drummer Bruce Smith keeps them all honest with impeccable precision, a master craftsman.

Being Stupid Again is the next new track to get an airing and illustrates his feelings on the “Wokerati” as he dismisses them as being silly students, glibly regurgitating slogans they have no understanding of. The mainstream music press seem to have given him a free pass on his anti-trans rhetoric, in their reviews of End Of World, another reference perhaps to how he sees life, with only some of the more critical online sites taking him to task over Being Stupid Again. Let’s not forget that this is a man who backed Trump and only last year said he’d like to see the chinless Jacob Rees-Mogg, as the next British PM. The song ends with Lydon asking “how much for that education? I’m not paying that!”, which seeing as he’s been a US citizen since 2013, isn’t a problem for him as he doesn’t pay UK tax and students have to self-fund anyway thanks to the Tories. He’s always liked to be a bit contrary and go against the flow and whilst it’s a great tune, it’s lyrically bankrupt.

The triptych of Poptones, This Is Not A Love Song and Death Disco ramp up the temperature, before a thankfully abridged version of The Room I’m In, a frankly dreadful affair recorded but strangely effective as unaccompanied verse. A less percussive version of Flowers Of Romance is followed by Memories and then Car Chase, another new one, which is out of the classic PiL mould and sounds immense live. The Body and Warrior follow, neither of which I particularly care for live, before Shoom brings the main set to a close, but not before he’s had a rant about the members of his ex-band. Last year it was Danny Boyle, another Mancunian, producer of the Disney+ mini-series Pistol,  based on Steve Jones autobiography Lonely Boy. He says he’s not bothered about Messers Matlock, Cook and Jones, but I think he doth protest too much, otherwise he would feel compelled to bring it up. It’s at this point I think he loses a few members of the audience, many of whom would have been at the Apollo to see Generation Sex earlier in the summer. If that’s the hill he wants to die on, then who am I to deny him the opportunity? The traditional encore prevails and sees them rip through Public Image, Open Up and Rise, which is a great upbeat song to end on.

All Images Copyright of Andi Callen Photography/@punker1962

Will we see another PiL album? Personally, I suspect not, which would be a huge shame but I’m sure we haven’t seem the end of them performing live just yet. And Tom’s verdict? – he came as a PiL fan and left as a new convert to Meryl Streek, clutching a Death To The Landlord t-shirt. There’s a changing of the guard at Punkingham Palace and long may it continue.

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