Pet Shop Boys, Frankmusik

Miss Fliss 19/06/2009

Ahead of the show, I'd been jokingly wondering what new ridiculous item The Pet Shop Boys could possibly wear on their heads. Lights on in the Millennium Dome, and the stage reveals Neil Tennant wearing a cardboard box - covered in material that would normally form a pair of lady's tights. The dancers were kitted out in differently coloured takes on this bonkers headgear. Now, the last time I saw a live act sport that sort of thing was at All Tomorrow's Parties when a band had cardboard Stella boxes on their bonces and they wailed as if they were either witnessing a murder or being murdered - I couldn't quite settle on which. It's a very different affair tonight, thankfully!

I'll say this early on: Pet Shop Boys are one of the best musical acts in the world. Shelve all notions of snobbery should you have any, because this is pop music at its best: intelligent, sharp, emotive, exhilarating. The sound is sleek, the choruses make your heart soar, and yet there's a real sense of bittersweet sadness in vocal delivery and sheer heartfelt intent. All this, and they're the only band to have made and starred in a feature length film that contains: Chris Lowe throwing a cooked breakfast at Barbara Windsor, zebras on trains, tacky seaside towns with wacky characters, a Biggles figure, menacing priests, Pink Floyd style pyrotechnics, and an existentialist ventriloquist dummy ('It Couldn't Happen Here' - track it down if you can, it's a marvel not seen before or since!).

There is a wealth of quality in their discography, pivoting around Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe's joint ability to compose perfect singles. Often wrongly written off as relics from the '80s, the electro duo have seldom slackened pace nor has their flair faltered - their consistency for songwriting is up there with The Beatles. We'd be here all day if I were to name all the songs, just go and have a peek at their discography page on Wikipedia if you need reminding.

So what do we get with a live Pet Shop Boys performance in 2009? I was fully expecting an eyesore of glamour, costume changes, parading around, and over-the-top campness in spades from both stage and stalls. In actuality, things are subdued and subtle. A simple stack of white bricks against white background hint at an art direction, with the bricks stacked purposefully every which way, changing structure with every new song (by a stagehand dressed all in white from chemist's coat to builder's hat, of course). The crowd looks blindingly ordinary. The only element of glamour arrives when Neil Tennant enters the stage resplendent in sparkling gold crown and velveteen gown, but I'll get on to that later.

The setlist did not disappoint. The boys' new opus Yes has that rare tenth album quality meaning I would not have been displeased had the bulk of material been from this new work. PSB were not overtly in Hits mode and the order and choice of songs reflected this. A very unassuming and touching Heart kicked things off, with a strangely arresting sight in the form of Neil clutching his heart whilst wearing that strange box getup on his head. It was good to hear the lesser known Two Dived by Zero, Why Don't We Live Together, and Jealousy. But deep down, everyone was on tenterhooks for the explosion of It's A Sin (complemented by the explosion of glitter, lovely) and Suburbia. The Village People cover Go West sent the gay contingent of their fan base wild, and the whole arena set to whoops, chorus singing and generally going mad. One girl was doing star jumps.

New songs such as Did You See me Coming?, Pandemonium, Love Etc, and All Over the World are every bit as wonderful and tuneful as the solid gold classics. Seeing PSB perform this on TV recently was also a treat, with Neil never looking so smilingly happy as he sang.

Being Boring ought to be more widely appreciated as there is a poignant beauty to its topic (the death of a gay friend) and to its resonance. If you pay attention, there is sadness that tinges the vocals of almost every Pet Shop Boys song, even the bright great buoyantly melodic ones. It's always dolour that hits hard, yet life-affirming and achingly beautifully. Therein lies some of the cleverness of the pop double-act for me.

Surprise of the night was Neil commencing a rendition of Coldplay's Viva La Vida. You got the feeling Chris Martin was likely to have been in the wings, grinning his face off at this nod of respect. It's a cover that really works; there's no irony or playfulness, just a faithful, spot-on version that hits home what a theatrical show tune it could be. Neil Tennant is dressed as a king throughout and it's a special moment of the concert. On another note, a particularly big grin was caused when Chris Lowe deigned to bother getting up and did a half-hearted strut across the stage and back, to a swell of cheers.

West End Girls closed proceedings, and I was left with a feeling of satisfaction, an expert show well done, with songs brandishing as much vitality as ever. And, whilst there could have been more in the way of stage theatrics and show, the subtlety let the songs do the talking, and it's this perennial sense of engineered subtlety that ultimately leads me to regard The Pet Shop Boys as such masters.