“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Johnny Rotten’s final words could scarcely have been more irritating as his Sex Pistols exited the Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel when last they played Las Vegas, in September 2003. Not only was the line recycled (he’d said exactly that following the Pistols’ first “last” show—San Francisco ’78), it also felt sadly valid after the perfunctorily scripted Vegas stopover.
Not so for the British punk legends’ return to the venue Saturday night. The only American date on the band’s 2008 itinerary saw the original four members loosen up and celebrate their return to the stage with a performance more worthy of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, even reluctant ones. Opening with a lounge-ified take on 1977 single “Pretty Vacant,” Rotten, guitarist Steve Jones, bassist Glen Matlock and drummer Paul Cook displayed twice the energy they brought to town five years ago, despite the entire quartet having crossed into their 50s in the interim.
“This is the Sex Pistols. Enjoy or die!” Rotten advised at the start, and the capacity, mostly older crowd opted for the former, singing along loudly to “Holidays in the Sun,” “God Save the Queen,” “Anarchy in the U.K.” and the other nine cuts off seminal (and only) Pistols LP Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols. The band also performed a pair of non-album tracks and four covers, the last two of which— sci-fi Hawkwind rocker “Silver Machine” and a deliciously ragged run through The Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner” (Rotten’s altered chorus: “Roadrunner once, roadrunner twice, roadrunner three times … outta sight!”)—came during an unexpected second encore.
Sure, microphone issues made it difficult to hear Rotten’s vocals early on. And yes, a few tunes weren’t as fast, or as tight, as the recordings. But Pistols shows were never about musicianship, so holding them to that high standard now seems a bit anachronistic.
Far more important, anyway, was Rotten’s charisma, his ability to work fans into a frenzy by scrunching his facial muscles and his sharp warning to Joint security to stop “throwing people out for no fucking reason.” Oh, and his parting comment, clearly unrehearsed this time: “We shall be passing out under the bushes immediately.”
The bottom line: ***1/2