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Jah Wobble & Keith Levene play Metal Box In Dub
Village Underground, London
Friday May 25 2012
Jah Wobble / Keith Levene


John Lydon doesn't like it. He's been talking about taking legal action to try and stop it. And you can understand his point of view, really.

At precisely the time Lydon relaunches Public Image Limited with a new line-up, new tours, and a new album, two of his former colleaues - Pil founder-members Jah Wobble and Keith Levene - reconvene with a touring show in which they play the groundbreaking, envelope-pushing, never-been-anything-like-it-before-or-since Pil album Metal Box in its entirety.

No matter how good Lydon's current incarnation of Pil might be (and, on stage at least, they're very good), the fact remains that Metal Box was the album that made the band's reputation. To a great extent it's the reason why, years after the eventual split, Lydon can bring Pil back for another go-around and still find an audience waiting for him. It's also the reason Wobble and Levene can fill Village Underground tonight, with an eager audience of Pil-heads who want to hear Metal Box played by the two musicians who had most to do with its distinctive sound.

Lydon might object to that, too - and, certainly, Metal Box is just as much his creation as anyone's. But it was Wobble's booming, lo-freak bass and Levene's shards-of-glass guitar that shaped the sonic landscapes of that album. Tonight they roll it out for us one more time.

Here comes the noise, looming in like heavy weather. Wobble's bass is, of course, massive. A mighty, throbbing thing, the subterranean soundwaves rolling out of his cabinets are felt as much as heard. Well, of course, this we know: Jah Wobble / Keith LeveneWobble has been the most prolific of all the ex-Pil members, and has even notched up a few chart smasheroonies along the way. We know his bass is huge and bulbous. But tonight, in the context of Pil songs, the trademark Wobble bottom end and his hypnotic, circling basslines are mighty indeed.

It's counterpointed by Keith Levene's scratchy, skittering, spikes-and-sandpaper guitar, a defiantly un-rock 'n' roll style of playing that still sounds as uniquely off-kilter now as it did then. Levene's post-Pil story isn't entirely positive - it basically amounts to a frustratingly small handful of recordings and a long bout of drug-fuelled not-doing-muchness. But he's clearly on top of his game tonight.

Strolling back and forth on stage, flicking at his guitar strings with curiously delicate, almost offhand movements, Levene somehow generates a jagged, prickly, shuddering, shimmering sound that is utterly compelling, while remaining a word away from the usual rock guitar histrionics. You find yourself marvelling at his plangent, astringent sound and effortless bursts of filigree detail even as you wonder how the hell he does it.

It's not entirely the Jah 'n' Keith show, mind. Marc Layton-Bennet on drums provides a spare, economical, but always bang-on beat. Sean Corby steps up to the mic at intervals to inject trumpet and flugelhorn, adding an intriguing, impressionistic, Miles Davis flavour to the brew. And, on vocals, Nathan Maverick does a very creditable impression of John Lydon. Well, of course he does: his day job is impersonating the Lydon wail in a Sex Pistols tribute band.

In a way, I suppose, it's a bit of a cop-out to bring in a copycat - especially given that other aspects of the songs have been rearranged and developed and grown. But as the band haul us deeper into the Metal Box, I find myself warming to Nathan Maverick.

He manages to be irreverent (he's sporting an LED display on his T-shirt set up to read 'Keith is a cunt', to the delight of the front row) and self-effacing (during the lengthy instrumental passages he hangs back, letting the music itself front the show) while stepping in and out of the songs with a natural ease and a vocal style that, based as it is on old-school Pil, is noticeably more clipped and unfussy than Lydon's present-day theatrical caterwaul. Uncannily enough, in the end I forget that he's impersonating John. He just fits in. This might not (quite) be Pil on stage, but it's definitely a band in its own right.

And yes, the songs themselves have been tweaked and prodded and re-invented. 'Poptones' is a near 15-minute epic, almost an exercise in mass hypnoosis as the Wobble bassline teeters to and fro, and the Levene guitar sends daggers spinning into the rhythm. The trumpet drifts in and out, weaving around the vocals as the song unfolds, and unfolds, and unfolds. 'Death Disco', speedy and forceful, clocks in at the 10 minute mark, the guitar an ever-shifting crash and tumble as Wobble, sitting by his backline as if relaxing on his porch, unfolds that bassline without so much as breaking sweat.

Jah Wobble / Keith Levene'Memories' hurtles along, a thundering slice of dub disco, and even 'No Birds Do Sing' - arguably one of Pil's more proggy moments - has its groove shoved to the fore as the band dig in for a long haul. It says much for both the strength of the material and the band's sinewey, impressionistic arrangements that even when things are extended way beyond the songs' original duration, nothing outstays its welcome. On the contrary, these extended, elaborated, tangental takes on the Metal Box material sound so natural you'd almost believe the songs were like this all along.

A muscular, rhythmic 'Careering' crops up, dominated by Levene's asssertive rhythm guitar - a complete contrast to the original, which was all heavy-duty electronics. And then, as if to make a point, 'Public Image' cranks up, the fast and righteous grand finale, the band nailing their right to these songs to the wall.

Not that anyone here tonight is about to quibble about that. As the last echoes subside, Wobble gives each band member a big-up (with a special hug for Levene, who looks bashful and chuffed in equal measures), and the cheers are deafening. That was a tour de force, a no-shit demonstration of how to nail it.

I suspect if John Lydon had unbent enough to attend (as it was, his absence loomed over everything like a cantankerous ghost) he would've been swept along with the rest of us. Tonight Metal Box was reinvented - as Lydon himself might have it - gloriously.


Jah Wobble: Website | MySpace | Facebook

Keith Levene: Website | Facebook

For more photos from this gig, look under Jah Wobble here.

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