Pulp Make Triumphant U.S. Return at Radio City Music Hall

Pulp
Julie Holder for RollingStone.com
Pulp onstage at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
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Well, that was excellent. Pulp played New York’s Radio City Music Hall last night, the first American gig of the reunion tour they began almost a year ago, and the first time the legendary Britpop fops have played the U.S. since the Nineties. Jarvis Cocker wiggled and pranced around the room in his natty suit, geek glasses and Cuban-heel boots, a brazen showgirl in the body of a pervy librarian. Who else besides Jarvis would get cheers from a New York audience by announcing it was the anniversary of The Great Gatsby’s publication in 1925? And who else would recite lines from the book while throwing Snickers and Milky Way bars into the crowd? "There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy and the tired," Jarvis said, quoting from Gatsby as a preface to "Something Changed," one of Pulp’s big love ballads. "And if you are one of the pursued or the pursuing, this one’s for you."

But everybody in a Pulp song is always pursued and pursuing, which is why their songs hold up so smashingly. They barely ever played the U.S. in their heyday, and Jarvis’ superb solo shows haven’t featured any Pulp material since the band split in the early 2000s. So ever since the band reunited the vintage "Common People"-era lineup, American fans have been waiting for this moment.

The whole two-hour show was a lovefest. It began with green glowing letters flashing trite stage banter ("Welcome to the showpiece of a nation," "You’re looking good," "Do you want to see a dolphin?," "Shall we do it?") before Pulp kicked off with four of their juiciest songs: "Do You Remember The First Time?," "Mis-Shapes," "Razzmatazz" and "Pencil Skirt." Jarvis danced up into the balconies for the cheese-disco histrionics of "This Is Hardcore" and "F.E.E.LI.N.G. C.A.L.L.E.D. L.O.V.E.," while "Sorted for E’s & Wizz" became a mock-rave with lasers, airhorn and a smoke machine. In the palatial surroundings of Radio City, Jarvis apologized for "our secondhand and slightly shabby form of glamour," yet he seemed right at home.

Pulp have more great songs than they can fit into two hours, but there were no weak spots in the set list, even if fans pined for more His N Hers and early gems like "O.U." and "Stacks." (Just last September in London, they busted out the fervently cult-beloved 1992 single "Sheffield: Sex City." So we can dream, right?) They did almost all of the 1995 classic Different Class, as they should have: the Bowie-meets-Clash rabble rouser "Common People," the hangover lament "Bar Italia," the tasteful ballad "Underwear."  They also did "Something Changed," with its romantic couplet, "If we never met / Would I be singing this song to someone else?" (For the couple next to me, oddly, that was one of their sing-together-and-make-out lines. Keep it crunk, you two!)

Pulp rarely get mentioned in this country without reference to the Britpop moment they epitomized – that point in the Nineties when great art twits like Blur, Elastica, Oasis and Menswe@r ruled the English-speaking-except-America world. But Pulp really stand apart from that era, especially Different Class and His N Hers. They’re how the Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead would have sounded if Morrissey had the good taste to love disco, with Jarvis’ heavy-breathing tales of small-town lust over swishy keyboards and surf guitars. So it’s no surprise that the audience was young – even if most of these hardcore Pulp fans weren’t old enough to see R-rated movies back when "Like a Friend" was in Great Expectations for the poignant "Gwyneth Paltrow shows up at Ethan Hawke’s art studio so she can pose nude" scene.

It was especially intense to see Pulp crash America after a weekend with two Bruce Springsteen shows, since Jarvis Cocker is one of the few songwriters with a Springsteen-sharp eye for quotidian detail. They both like to sing about lost kids fumbling toward a moment that never comes, dancing in the dark. (And at one of his 2007 solo shows in New York, Jarvis ended with a bang-up acoustic cover of "State Trooper," always a scary song, though the idea of Jarvis trying to navigate the New Jersey Turnpike is frightening in itself.) And like the E Street Band, Pulp can take a decade or so off and then show up again to rock crowds as if it’s no sweat at all. "If a lot of people share a dream at the same time, sometimes it solidifies and the dream becomes a reality," Jarvis mused at one point. Give him and his band credit for making that dream real.

Set list:
"Do You Remember The First Time"
"Mis-Shapes"
"Razzmataz"
"Pencil Skirt"
"Something Change"
"Disco 2000"
"Sorted for E’s and Wiz"
"F.E.E.LI.N.G. C.A.L.L.E.D. L.O.V.E."
"I Spy"
"Babies"
"Underwear"
"This Is Hardcore"
"Sunrise"
"Bar Italia"
"Common People"

Encore:
"Like A Friend"
"Live Bed Show"
"Party Hard"