Review: Pet Shop Boys showcase new material

Chris Lowe and Neil Tennant of Pet Shop Boys, pictured in June 2013. Getty Images

TORONTO — England’s Pet Shop Boys have a back catalogue the kind of which would be the envy of any band. Doubly surprising when you consider their absence from the pop culture lexicon for a generation — a generation that has made heroes out of electronic groups such as Hot Chip, Cut Copy, and The Presets, to name but a few, who stole their fair share from the PSB playbook.

And while Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have never thrown in the towel on their 30-odd-year career and instead continue to tour new material, it is this abundant catalogue that fans want to hear when attending their concerts.

Still, you can’t blame the group for trying to shill Electric, their 12th studio album and first to be released on the group’s own, x2 label. It’s admirable they’re so brazen about it, right down to the daunting backdrop that greets you upon entering the Sony Centre in downtown Toronto. “Electric. The New Album. Out Now.” it reads. They are for sale, and they are willing to administer the goods any way possible.

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Lucky for the full house of baby boomers and nascent Gen X’ers, they were treated to a spoonful of sugar with the new songs in the form of hypnotic lights, video imagery, and go-go dancers. I mean, who wants to watch aging men not dance and not play an instrument?

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Almost in answer to this question was the show’s opening set list, which was performed behind a diaphanous veil upon which graphics (that looked like outtakes from Tron) were projected. They were clearly putting their best foot forward, which apparently didn’t involve an unobstructed view of the band.

Soon, though, the veil was lifted and so, too, was the somewhat stifled mood of the first few songs, which included “Axis” and “A Face Like That”. Though the new material is strong, it posed a bit of a conundrum for those in attendance, as many toggled between standing and sitting, hesitantly dancing then resting before a song they knew was played.

Pet Shop Boys perform at Toronto’s Sony Centre. (Gavin Crisp photo).
That came soon enough. “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)” rang through the centre, drawing the crowd to their feet and where they remained for the rest of the show. It was also soon after this point in the show that we were introduced to the third and fourth members of the Pet Shop Boys entourage. Two dancers approached the stage donning shaggy yak/pagan masks, looking like the stuff of nightmares. But their whimsical synchronized dancing made them seem more laughable than anything and quickly, rendered them quite charming.They would have to be: Tennant spoke little. What little he did speak was limited to shouts of “Toronto!”. It was a disco, with set interstitials occupied by the dancers — whether they be with pogos, stilts, or other means of lending to the spectacle. This was clearly the intention with their employment, with eyes locked on them more than the statuesque songwriters. Lowe, for one, never budged from behind his keyboard/laptop except to partake in one of several costume changes throughout the night and one unforgettable performance of “Love Etc” involving vertical beds.

The night’s music sampled equally from PSB’s rich arsenal of songs, though the new songs, while ideal for a drug-addled night on the dancefloor were perhaps not the best tracks for a Wednesday night in Toronto. After the hour mark the crowd started to lag, as indicated by the dearth of cell phones in the air. Only the triumverate of “It’s A Sin”, “Domino Dancing”, and “Always On My Mind” could — and did — save the night and have the audience reaching for their portable cameras once more.

A singalong broke out during these fan favourites and before long, Tennant was holding out the mic to the crooning crowd, encouraging them to do his job for him. Once he discovered we knew the words to his songs he was like a baby with a cardboard box. Returning to the concert staple with a sense of curiosity and delight.

The encore saw the duo return to the stage (but not before yet another costume change) to play anthem “Go West” and new single, “Vocal”. The confetti that was shot into the air served as a period to the night, confirming what had become readily apparent. The Pet Shop Boys are as much about the visual as the audio. One can’t help but wonder what an early PSB concert would be like, back when the band couldn’t afford the pomp or the pogo of today.

Luckily for those in attendance at the Sony Centre, those days are long since past.

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The band is set to play Windsor, Ont. on Sept. 27 and in Vancouver later in the fall.

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