Pet Shop Boys mix archness, emotion

Posted: May 27, 2002

Back in the late 1980s, when the Pet Shop Boys flaunted their anti-rock inauthenticity, Neil Tennant once justified a lip-synched TV performance with the quip, "I quite like proving that we can't cut it live."

That was long before the graying Boys - singer Tennant is 47, and keyboard player Chris Lowe is 42 - brought out the new Release, in which the dance-pop duo employs warm guitar textures and subdued grooves more suitable for listening to on the sofa than under a disco ball.

On Saturday, the black-clad Tennant and ball-capped Lowe came to the Electric Factory for their first Philadelphia performance. (That fact seemed to be lost on Tennant, who told the date-night crowd of gay men and straight couples, "It's great to be back!")

In previous tours, the Boys dressed up sophisticated, droll pop tunes with wigs, costume changes and elaborate sets. Now, the props have been replaced by a full band that brings out the emotionalism bubbling beneath the arch surface of the songs.

And the Pets certainly can cut it live: Suavely lit and smartly paced, the 18-song set mixed the bulk of Release with hits to satiate a crowd eager to shake its middle-aged booty. Percussionist Dawne Adams augmented programmed beats on "Where the Streets Have No Name/Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," a brilliant fusion of U2 portentousness and Frankie Valli bubblegum. Covers of Willie Nelson's "Always on My Mind" and the Village People's "Go West" were equally ecstatic.

The Pets long ago passed their peak as hit-makers. But having proved that cheesy synth-pop can contain big ideas, they remain accomplished craftsmen capable of deep feeling and mild subversion.

Tennant emoted effectively on "Love Is a Catastrophe" and "Birthday Boy," which mourns hate-crime victim Matthew Shepard and Jesus Christ. And on "The Night I Fell in Love," he coyly tweaked Eminem, grabbing his crotch for sardonic effect on the languid romance, which imagines a homosexual tryst between a teenage fan and the gay-baiting rapper.

Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com.

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