It's hard to imagine that a band that has been together for over thirty years, criss-crossed the globe numerous times, and sold over 50 million albums is only holding their first ever concert in Tennessee this year. But that was the situation that unfolded at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall as synthpop innovators Pet Shop Boys brought their Super World Tour to Music City.
After bursting onto the music scene in the mid-'80s with MTV staples like “West End Girls” and “It's a Sin”, Pet Shop Boys evolved their sound continuously over their three decade career. The duo, consisting of vocalist Neil Tennant and keyboardist Chris Lowe, paved the way for modern synthpop and laid much of the groundwork for modern EDM.
Judging by the near capacity crowd at Andrew Jackson Hall their influence is a multi-generational one. The audience was an almost even split of Gen X'ers who likely grew up seeing Pet Shop Boys on MTV and millennials who know them best from their more recent dance remixes or work with Madonna.
The show began with a video screen of revolving geometric shapes and two spheres that revolved to reveal the band. Tennant and Lowe took the first three songs of the setlist alone. Sporting futuristic metallic headgear, the pair mixed up old favorites with new songs off their 2016 release Super. The breadth of sound created by Lowe provided the perfect backdrop for Tennant's spot-on vocal delivery. In a time when many bands who came to prominence in the '80s are retooling their hits to fit their new vocal range, Tennant hit every note of both old and new songs like it was 1985.
After the first three songs, Pet Shop Boys were joined by two percussionists and a keyboardist/violin player, who also contributed backing vocals. The added instrumentalists allowed Pet Shop Boys to move into faster and more percussion heavy songs. As the set progressed, the beats got heavier and the bass got deeper until Andrew Jackson Hall resembled a rave as much as a concert.
At the center of it all, however, remained the two main players. Lowe's full focus was on the music and he remained anchored behind his keyboard stack. That left Tennant to carry the crowd interaction. Always a bit of an anti-pop contrarian, Tennant's trademark stoicism melted a bit as the set progressed. By the end of the show, an audience sing of “Domino Dancing”, Tennant was sporting a wide grin, exclaiming “you're wonderful!” to the Nashville crowd.
While the entire show was well-received, the highlights bookended the setlist. After opening with “Inner Sanctum”, Pet Shop Boys wasted no time in delighting fans with their biggest American hit "West End Girls." But the truly special moment came at the end of the show. Pet Shop Boys closed out their encore with their cover of “Always on My Mind.” The song has been a staple of the band's live set since 1987, but it's hard to imagine a show where it carried more meaning than Nashville. Previous charting renditions of "Always On My Mind" carry significant Tennessee connections, with residents Brenda Lee and Elvis Presley and country superstar Willie Nelson all contributing versions. Tennant acknowledged Presley and Nelson's renditions before launching into the band's own decidedly more techno version.
A regular criticism of EDM is that many of its practitioners favor visual spectacle over musicianship. Any aspiring DJ who wants to tackle that criticism would do well to take a lesson from Pet Shop Boys. The visual overload of an EDM show melded beautifully with the impressive musicianship of Pet Shop Boys and their talented band. It may have been their first trip to Nashville but, judging from the size and reactions of the crowd, it likely won't be their last.
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