There are people born to be onstage — and then there are the Pet Shop Boys. For the better part of two decades, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe have existed in a rather unique cocoon, one that’s let them pursue the glitziest elements of pop stardom while maintaining an almost clinical detachment from those elements.
That dichotomy was on full display when the duo hit the Radio City stage on Saturday night. Purposefully dwarfing themselves with a minimalist backdrop (made up of futuristic looking cubes that were manually manipulated by costumed stagehands), Tennant and Lowe communicated largely via the smallest of gestures — an arched eyebrow here, a brief spin behind the keyboard there.
Impassiveness melted away when the duo settled into their best-known material, but the early part of the first of two hourlong sets proved lifeless, despite the best efforts of the peripatetic trio of dancers brought along to interpret songs like “Psychological” and the unusually literal anti-Bush/Blair screed “I’m With Stupid.”
While the first set concentrated on the group’s more introspective material — using low-key takes on “Can You Forgive Her?” and “Dreaming of the Queen” to spotlight Tennant’s flatly plangent voice — the post-intermission perf brought out the big guns, both in terms of song selection and visual presentation.
The latter aspect homed in on the duo’s flair for presenting debauchery with a wink — as evidenced by the bump ‘n’ grind trappings of “Domino Dancing” and the military uniforms the dancers donned for bubblegum smutfest “The Sodom and Gomorrah Show.”
Still, the perf’s most important ingredient proved to be Tennant’s impeccable sense of pop history — which allowed him to seamlessly insert a verse of “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” into the duo’s cover of U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name.”
While there were certainly moments when the duo would have been well served by at least a cursory nod toward the cult of personality, they ultimately did a fine job of proving that pop stars can win hearts by — in the words of a song that wasn’t performed this time around — “Being Boring.”
The Pet Shop Boys play the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles on Nov. 8 and 9.