REVIEW: Pet Shop Boys at AO Arena, Manchester – irrepressible duo roll out the hits with a dream setlist – Richard Blackledge

It was a Friday night in Manchester that had taken a long time to come. Almost three years ago, in September 2019, Pet Shop Boys announced Dreamworld, an arena tour billed as their very first Greatest Hits show and designed to roughly coincide with the release of their 14th studio album, Hotspot, which followed in January 2020.

Well, we all know what happened next. The pandemic led to the tour being postponed not once, but twice – and an anxious message posted on the Pet Shop Boys website ahead of Dreamworld’s first date in Milan, explaining that they couldn’t meet and greeting fans on the road for fear of catching Covid and derailing the whole thing again, highlights the air of precariousness that still surrounds live music.

But luckily, the Pet Shop Boys made it safely to the AO Arena. And if the idea of ​​a Greatest Hits show was sort of a gamble to make ticket sales smoother, now it makes even more sense as a way to celebrate the gems of their back catalog with an audience of thousands. after such a long delay.

Read more: Don’t fade, still radiant – Blondie makes long-awaited return to Manchester

The jewelry isn’t overdone either. Recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most successful British pop duo of all time, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have been crafting their erudite synthpop for over four decades, selling over 100 million records worldwide.

While some would have interpreted the idea of ​​a greatest hits tour loosely, slipping in fan-favorite album tracks that were never individually charted, Pet Shop Boys have put together a formidable setlist of two. hours that correctly fulfills the brief. Tennant was once associate editor of Smash Hits, after all, and is credited with coining the term “imperial phase” – when an act is at the height of its commercial powers and creative excellence seems effortless. .

Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of The Pet Shop Boys perform on their Dreamworld Tour

It’s pretty easy to deduce where Tennant and Lowe think their own Imperial phase begins and ends. Tonight’s picks consisted solely of singles that charted mostly in the upper tier of the top 40, only finding room for three albums released after 1999.

This means that all of their 1980s classics were present and correct, including the show opener Suburbia, Love Comes Quickly, Rent, Left To My Own Devices and their four number ones: Always On My Mind, Heart, It’s A Sin – getting new exposure by inspiring the title of Russell T Davies’ acclaimed Channel 4 drama about the AIDS crisis – plus West End Girls, recorded for the encore.

The latter was of course the first single that introduced the PSB aesthetic to the world, with Tennant speaking-singing a literal tale of a pressure-filled London where “sometimes it’s better to die” over an instantly recognizable Lowe-stamped atmospheric arrangement. bass line.

The staging, designed with creative director Tom Scutt, was simple but very effective. Two cute mini streetlights formed the centerpiece, while video screens were rolled out for snippets of past promo clips and flashy neon graphics.

Lowe, as always, was an enigmatic presence behind his keyboards, impassive on a high stage in a succession of hats, dark glasses and heavy coats, while Tennant, an underrated singer, was in a beautiful voice, urging the crowd at a mass to sing during Domino Dancing.

Given the breadth of the PSB canon, there’s still room for curiosities, even taking the “best of” approach. It was a treat to hear their version of Losing My Mind from Stephen Sondheim’s musical Follies – it was never a hit for them, but the hi-NRG rendition they produced for Liza Minnelli did. was.

And it seems remarkable today that a song as singular as You Only Tell Me You Love Me When You’re Drunk, an almost country-tinged number with finely observed lyrics about the alcohol-fueled mood swings of a lover, might have ranked at number eight – but that’s really what Tennant, with an eagle eye for chart positions, reminded us of as he strapped on an unusual acoustic guitar.

Pet Shop Boys on their Dreamworld Tour
Pet Shop Boys on their Dreamworld Tour

The duo’s collaboration with Dusty Springfield, What Have I Done To Deserve This, was performed as a duet with Clare Uchima, one of three backing vocalists and percussionists who joined Tennant and Lowe. A similar method was employed on Dreamland, the Hotspot track which originally featured Years & Years’ Olly Alexander, who starred in Davies’ It’s A Sin.

They said their goodbyes following a poignant Being Boring, dedicated by Tennant to the victims of the arena bombing – which he summed up as a “horrific hate crime” – as the fifth anniversary of the atrocity is reached. Its appropriately defiant chorus – “We were never boring, we were never boring” – is as good a manifesto as any for The Pet Shop Boys’ career, that stellar Dreamworld show, and how to live life. in general.

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