In the case of the Pop Group, the wait was three and a half decades. Think about that for a moment: The last time M. Stewart and Co. graced a stage on the planet prior to the current tour, Ronald Reagan hadn’t even been inaugurated; kids born that year are now on the cusp of middle age. A hell of a long time, in other words—plenty of time for expectations to rise unreasonably, for the legend to overtake reality, laying the ground for almost-inevitable disappointment.
In Toronto, the Pop Group did not disappoint. Not by a long shot. Their opening salvo, a suitably caustic and spiky “We Are All Prostitutes,” firmly staked their claim to present-day credibility, as gleefully abrasive—though perhaps a bit less distorted—as it was upon first hearing eons ago.
For a dyed-in-the-wool PG fan, it’s hard to overstate how genuinely reassuring this was: No evidence whatsoever of any dulled edges. Pop Group were picking up precisely where they left off in 1981, injecting a bit more bitter life experience and technical expertise into the proceedings perhaps, but remaining every bit as strident, as uncompromising, as declarative as ever. The band segued effortlessly between current and back catalog material, hitting all the high points of the splendid current release “Citizen Zombie”—the title track, “Nowhere Girl,” “Mad Truth” punctuated by stalwart favorites from days of yore: “We Are Time,” “Where There’s A Will,” “Thief Of Fire.”
Throughout the proceedings, drummer Bruce Smith and bassist Dan Catsis stuck to the shadows, creating a propulsive, thunderous rhythmic foundation for Mark Stewart, Gareth Sager, and Alexi Shrimpton to scrawl and screech upon. Sager alternately clawed at his telecaster and stabbed at a distorted, wounded-looking keyboard as Stewart paced the stage, emitting echo-drenched trademark yowls, growls and barks—every inch the authoritative, commanding presence the PG discs and his solo oeuvre suggest. A deft, dub-tinged live mix magnified the spikiness nicely.
Considering that the Pop Group have been generally unseen on these shores apart from jittery ancient YouTube videos, the current appearances effectively mark the band’s live North American debut—a long-overdue introduction decades in the making. The old vids tantalizingly hint at the uncompromising, electric nature of the live band; the genuine experience, as represented by the Toronto appearance, solidly brought the experience home. For a brief time, the Pop Group made it possible to remember—or maybe imagine—an era when live music could be something more than a display of simple style and spectacle, rising to the level of an energizing blast of cathartic energy engaging the mind and body at once. They were long awaited, heavily hyped, and eagerly anticipated, and they did not disappoint.
-Words and pictures by David B. Livingstone
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