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Music Review

Still showing signs of Rottenness

By Jonathan Perry
Globe Correspondent / May 6, 2010

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His name may be John Lydon, but the perpetually pugnacious singer who takes no quarter and does not suffer fools gladly will forever be Johnny Rotten, punk’s most famous face and unrepentant instigator.

What he also made clear after all these years — sneer and shock of spiky hair intact — during a bristling two-hour set with a reconstituted version of his post-Sex Pistols outfit, Public Image Ltd., was that whether playing to an audience of 10,000 or 10 (and Tuesday night’s tally was far closer to the latter count), Lydon will forever be a star.

It was all the more curious, then, that with Public Image Ltd. — PiL — on tour for the first time in 18 years, a barely half-full house greeted the quartet during the first of two nights at Royale. A chagrined Lydon took notice, of course, peppering his thoughts on the subject with a series of unprintable nouns and adjectives before the band had played even one blistering note of “This Is Not a Love Song.’’

“I apologize to you for the rest of Boston not turning out,’’ said Lydon, steeling himself with the defiant gleam that’s served him well through decades of assorted triumphs and disasters. He had some anatomically vivid suggestions about what those who skipped the show could do with themselves.

The sparse turnout barely subtracted from the strength of a show that was equal parts humming postpunk swarm (“Poptones,’’ “Rise’’), metallic dance-floor dirge (“Death Disco,’’ “USLS 1’’), and vintage Rotten rant (“Bags,’’ a peppy ode to body bags).

Lydon’s vinegary voice — a heckle and harangue set to music — was in marvelously bilious, belligerent form. He rolled his R’s when he was feeling frisky, and dripped venom on “Disappointed,’’ a mocking assessment of friendship and loyalty.

So, after all these years, was it punk? Ask the guy who spit on Lydon during “Religion,’’ the singer’s withering indictment of church-related abuse and hypocrisy. “I wrote this song 30 years ago, and it’s still going on,’’ Lydon sneered, before receiving a dissenting opinion in the form of a gob of saliva hurled at the stage. “The irony of the evening,’’ Lydon said, after berating the culprit and having him removed from the premises, “is that an alleged Christian spit on me.’’ Of course, Johnny has probably spit on a few over the years.

PUBLIC IMAGE LTD. At: Royale, Tuesday night