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Review: Pet Shop Boys unleash visually striking spectacle at ACL Live

Eric Webb

Editor’s note: This article was originally published April 17, 2014

There are many things to which you could compare a Pet Shop Boys concert. These things include, but are not limited to:

  • What everyone thought virtual reality looked like in the 1990s
  • A fever dream you might have after watching too much “Max Headroom” during flu season
  • One of the dance club scenes from an early season of “Queer As Folk” (but the U.K. version)
  • A very faithful adaptation of a Madonna video, circa “Ray of Light”

In other words, it’s where a certain visual aesthetic of 25 years ago has come home to roost, and it is a dazzling time capsule.

The English electropop duo brought Grade-A spectacle and all their hits to a sold-out ACL Live show at the Moody Theater on Wednesday night, eight years after their last Austin engagement. The highly polished scene was as outré as possible without being uncomfortable. The stage crew was clad in neon orange coats. The opening screen projection, a quickly racing trip through tunnels of all kinds, recalled a Windows screensaver. Singer Neil Tennant and keyboardist Chris Lowe emerged from each side of the stage, wearing cartoonishly spiky black coats that would easily disguise them as sea urchins. The lasers-to-audience-members ratio skewed high.

It’s tempting to think that relative youngsters like Grimes and Crystal Castles have cornered the market on avant garde dance music, that such displays are the province of twentysomething shock junkies. Looking around at the demographics of the exuberant Moody Theatre crowd, though … well, let’s just say that God isn’t making many new Pet Shop Boys fans.

There was polite enjoyment in the air when the duo worked their way through lesser known material, but with each popular song came wellsprings of nostalgic appreciation. When Tennant sounded the first cry of “money!” on “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money),” arms flailed on the floor and backsides left the seat on the balcony.

How committed was this audience to Pet Shop Boys? Early in the set, while the band was off stage, a pair of dancers emerged wearing cow skulls and Nikki Sixx wigs. They performed what can best be described as dance-heaving, washed in red light and swirled by fog. When the Boys returned to join their skeletal bovine backup for “I Wouldn’t Normally Do This Kind of Thing,” both men had donned their own horned, metallic masks that looked part Fritz Lang, part Aleister Crowley.

The crowd didn’t seem fazed in the least. A selection of costumes worn by the dancers over the course of two hours:

  • The same cow skulls, but dressed up with blazers and doing Fosse
  • The same cow skulls, but dressed up with neon orange blazers and waltzing
  • DayGlo Koosh ball helmets
  • DayGlo microphone helmets
  • Full-body, metallic pom pom outfits, accompanied by pogo sticks

After a sound glitch ground the concert to a mercifully short halt midway, Tennant and Lowe brought the show back with an adrenaline shot called “West End Girls.” Though it seemed odd to squander their biggest hit in the middle of the set, it was perhaps necessary to recharge the room’s energy.

The band expertly interspersed familiar tunes from their heyday, like a rousing “It’s a Sin,” with newer material including cuts from last year’s “Electric” album. The song “Thursday,” for which the pair donned disco ball headgear, was a highlight, as was older track “Domino Dancing,” which inspired just as much of a singalong as “West End Girls.”

One rule of live music that Pet Shop Boys paid particular attention to: Always play to your audience. Ending the set with their cover of the Willie Nelson standard “Always On My Mind” at a show on Willie Nelson Boulevard seemed appropriate. An encore of “Go West” and “Vocal” was received well in the lingering Willie excitement.

And what’s the only way to follow a high concept, pulsing, strobing, synthesized jubilee? With a DJ set dance party in the foyer after the show, but of course. The good memories were there — all that was missing was the fog machine and the cow skulls.