LIVE REVIEW: Pet Shop Boys @ Utilita Arena, Newcastle (27.05.22) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Given the popularity of the nostalgia circuit – just check the number of critical darlings or indie favourites now onto their second reunion, or touting the anniversary tour of a beloved album they’ve already done an anniversary tour of ten years ago – and the ongoing collapse of the music (and general) economy, truthfully only the very top of the musical pyramid can really resist the lure of the guaranteed paycheck that is the oldies tour.

When you possess one of the greatest singles discographies ever, as with the Pet Shop Boys, to resist the lure of the greatest hits tour up until now speaks volumes both to Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s confidence in their ongoing work, but also to the strange position Pet Shop Boys hold as a touring act. If the usual proposition is to remind the audience of when they were young and footloose – or to give the younger crowd a taste of what they missed the first time around – then Pet Shop Boys stand out as an act whose commercial and artistic zenith was marked by an absence of touring. Even when they finally took to the stage, the shows they gave their fans – their 1989 tour, directed by Derek Jarman, and their 1991 tour Performance – were grand, truly theatrical spectacles where the idea of performing live like a traditional rock band was relegated to a tertiary concern in favour of ambitious, surreal choreography and staging that brought their records to a thematic rather than literal life.

While their later career has found the duo becoming seasoned live veterans, becoming stealth Glastonbury regulars and even touring with an acoustic guitar dominated set-up around 2002’s Release, their self-diagnosed imperial era was never about the euphoria and carefully managed jeopardy of live music – it was all contained in those dazzling, intelligent, witty, beautiful, ever so slightly lonely records.

With their usual flair for concept, the Dreamworld tour is less about historical flashbacks and more about where, as Tennant tells us, “West End Girls domino dance with New York City Boys”, a studious and precisely curated exhibition of the greatest triumphs Pet Shop Boys akin to Kraftwerk’s 3-D: The Catalogue shows which – lucky us – just so happens to involve nearly two hours of the finest pop music ever written.

Using a comparatively limited set-up with Tennant and Lowe flanked by a three-piece backing band occasionally hidden by an LCD curtain and the occasional interjection from hard-hat wearing stage hands (responsible for a charming visual joke bookending What Have I Done To Deserve This?), Dreamworld is a show unafraid to delve into the duo’s visual iconography – Rent prominently features the younger Tennant and Lowe as captured in Jarman’s video for the song – but which also resists the easy temptation to fall back on the Very-era conical hats or any album artwork.

Instead, with the material given a subtle aerodynamic retouch courtesy of their producer Stuart Price, the show leans on the evergreen juxtaposition of Tennant, the garrulous if guarded frontman and the stoic, unreadable Lowe: that and the giddy realisation that when a show can open with Suburbia and Can You Forgive Her and then keep raising the stakes from there, something genuinely spectacular is on the cards.

Certainly, while they are too savvy and aware to have ever avoided the hits in their live work, the sheer accumulation of hit singles delivered one after another is overwhelming, as when the Thatcherite satire of Opportunities bleeds into their definitive popist statement, their liberation of Where The Streets Have No Name from the clammy grasp of U2 towards soaring showbiz froth. It’s that careful balancing act of the intellectual and cold blooded with the immediate and thrilling that’s given them such a lengthy career after all. The heartbroken disco of I Don’t Know What You Want But I Can’t Give It Anymore nestles against the self-mythologising Left To My Own Devices; the deadpan, droll So Hard shares a stage with latter-day paean to dancefloor communalism Vocal: it’s not that these elements juxtapose, not really. It’s that they offer an outlook on pop music (and by extension, on life itself) whose fullness, scope and mastery of different emotional registers and meanings remains unmatched within popular music, the span of an epic social-realist novel condensed down to a four-minute synth-driven delight, again and again for well over three decades.

The closing duo of Go West and It’s A Sin are suitably monumental sonically (the new intro for It’s A Sin especially finds Lowe taking extra delight in just how apocalyptic a sample can be), but also make for an interesting mirror of their engagement with queer culture. The former is the kitsch cover version and minor albatross for the duo that gained its real strength from repurposing its aspirational message for a time following the fall of Soviet Russia and the dreadful peak of the HIV/AIDS pandemic – and after recent events a whole new level of uncanny power falls upon it – while the latter is the storming hi-NRG masterpiece that gave Russell T Davies’ remarkable recent series its name, a song that dwells in a particular combination of shame, pride and the anger of the outcast. Again, in an age where LGBTQ+ rights are coming under renewed cultural and political attack, even in the cuddly environs of an arena sing-along, new teeth are still bared.

Dreamworld’s playful, slightly suspicious approach to nostalgia comes to a head for the encore: dressed in variations of their Please era attire (Tennant in long overcoat, Lowe in hoodie and BOY hat), West End Girls here plays out as a softer echo of itself, that instantly recognisable bassline doled out with classic Lowe one-finger precision as a break across the icy landscape before the whole affair concludes with their most touching song of all, Being Boring (dedicated here to the late Andy Fletcher of Depeche Mode). An ode to friendship and loss directly drawn from Tennant’s own experiences, here it becomes a symbol of a larger farewell – to youth that’s gone and to possibilities now closed, to absent friends and bittersweet memories, maybe even to the Pet Shop Boys themselves. For a group known for their cerebral attitude, it’s a last generous gesture on an evening defined by an enthusiastic lack of restraint, a celebratory but still multi-faceted tour through some of pop music’s finest treasures.

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