Pet Shop Boys At Beacon Theatre
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By Randee Dawn
There are no surprises at a Pet Shop Boys concert. Anyone attending knows they will not so much get a concert as witness a spectacle.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. When a band is comprised of two members (Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe), one of whom barely stirs behind his keyboard during the set; and when the music is made up of entirely pre-programmed tracks (the keyboard was the only instrument onstage), the spectacle is what counts.
The PSBs don't go for just "something," though; they go for "everything." And as they proved in the largely sold-out intimate Beacon Theatre on the second of their two-night New York stint on Sept. 17, that really does mean everything: two dancers; a laser light show; strobe lights; wheeled props, including one that doubled as a shell to house dancers and an upright "bed" for the musicians when reversed; confetti cannons; and endless screen projections on a mid-stage scrim and on backgrounds designed like Venetian blinds. And that's without mentioning the multiple outlandish costume changes Tennant, Lowe and their dancers made throughout the evening.
But the Beacon is arguably not the right venue for this type of show. An old three-tiered theater originally designed for vaudeville, it's acoustically superior to Radio City Music Hall, something Tennant acknowledged offstage before the show. But the narrow seats left little room for audience expression, and once the band launched into their vibrating, endlessly catchy electronic dance tunes (smoothed over by Tennant's calm, earnest vocals) the one thing the audience wanted to do — dance — was very restricted.
This meant that despite the spectacle and studious attention to hits — only four songs from the band's recent album, Electric, made it into the set, which was populated with early hits such as "West End Girls" and "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money)" — there wasn't nearly as much of a raucous atmosphere as one might expect. Tennant did his best to liven the crowd, exhorting them to sing along to songs such as "Domino Dancing" and occasionally shouting, "New York!"
Despite the emphasis on their early catalog, there were a few pleasant outliers: Tennant's bouncy cover of "Somewhere" from "West Side Story" and a handful of mashups, including "One More Chance" woven into "A Face Like That" and "I Get Excited (You Get Excited Too)" blended into "Rent."
What remains remarkable about the PSBs is the way their songs, spanning nearly 30 years, have remained compelling, thoughtful and danceable despite a shifting music scene. The pair's sound is remarkably consistent, with new songs virtually indistinguishable from those written decades earlier: catchy and earnest, often deeply romantic, with literate lyrics that are as likely to make statements ("We're concerned/You're a threat/You're not integral/To the project," from the robotic "Integral") as they are to rhyme.
Does the combination of hits, costumes, dancing, and projection screens add up to a coherent whole? Not really. Whatever message or theme the PSBs are trying to impart (other than "have a good time") isn't clear in their live show. But then again, no one goes to a PSB concert to be preached at. Tennant and Lowe are veterans "to the project," and have their act down to a very well-programmed science.
To catch Pet Shop Boys in a city near you, click here for tour dates.
"One More Chance"/"A Face Like That"
"Opportunities (Let's Make Lots Of Money)"
"Memory Of The Future"
"The Rite Of Spring" (Igor Stravinsky sample)
"I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind Of Thing"
"I'm Not Scared"
"West End Girls"
"Somewhere" (from "West Side Story")
"I Get Excited (You Get Excited Too)"/"Rent"
"It's A Sin"
"Always On My Mind"
(Randee Dawn is a New York-based entertainment writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Emmy magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in 3:AM Magazine and on the podcast "Well Told Tales," and she is the co-author of The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion.)