Unlike with many bands that became popular in the 90s, this is not a reunion tour: Placebo has continued to release music since then. Although 2022’s Never Let Me Go is their first full length album since 2013’s Loud Like Love, there was an EP and an MTV Unplugged performance in the meantime to tide fans over. And in that span of time they have both changed and not—every album has its own vibe, if you will permit me to use the word, but Placebo always sound like Placebo, and they brought that sound to Brooklyn Steel this past weekend.
A very different band from Placebo at first glance, Big Joanie were an excellent choice of opener. Guitarist Stephanie Phillips, bassist Estella Adeyeri and drummer Chardine Taylor-Stone—all three provide vocals—are a UK trio who proudly declare themselves as a Black feminist punk band. Currently touring in support of their second album Back Home, which is out on Kill Rock Stars and Daydream Library Series, the two Brooklyn Steel shows were their first ever in NYC and the band made a special trip here just for them. While talking to the crowd they noted the influence of Placebo as a “queer punk awakening” for many people.
Musically, Big Joanie moves through riot grrrl to post-punk to synth-pop to create a sound all their own. They started out laid back on stage but built energy as the show progressed. A mix of analog and digital drums paired with synth support lent a unique edge to their rock, and their harmonies are the cherry on top. A highlight for me was during their single “Sainted,” when Adeyeri switched to guitar and absolutely shredded.
Between songs, the band called for support for trans people both here and across the pond and encouraged the audience to read Black feminist literature (“think about the centrality of Black women within the nexus of oppression”) and to join and stand in solidarity with trade unions. Their calls to action drew applause from the crowd (although I noted the only people near me who yelled support while Taylor-Stone was still talking were men—they got the spirit I guess, but read the room.)
Big Joanie at Brooklyn Steel
After a long lead up and a pre-recorded message asking fans not to view the show through their phones—“enjoy this fleeting and temporary moment”—Placebo launched into the opening track from Never Let Me Go, “Forever Chemicals” (perhaps one of their best songs ever, no exaggeration). Sporting a new look with long hair and a mustache, singer Brian Molko’s voice is exactly the one you remember. The band is down to two members now, Molko and Stefan Olsdal on guitar and bass, but a complement of touring musicians rounded out the lineup. The sound was tight as hell, and accompanied by visuals of the band mixed from live video in real time.
The setlist leaned heavily on new material. Never Let Me Go is metallic and jagged in the harder parts and blissed and chilled at times, and the songs were particularly sharp in a live setting. Tracks like “Twin Demons” and “Hugz” sounded huge in the mid-size venue. Placebo are a band known for their dark tones and moody lyrics, and much of their new material could be seen as misanthropic (“Try Better Next Time” in particular seems to have given up on humanity, extolling them to “grow fins, go back in the water” since we’ve fucked up so badly this go around) but there are moments of beauty to be found as well. “Happy Birthday In The Sky” was dedicated to Molko’s brother who passed away last year. Molko also noted his grandmother is from Canarsie and related his memories of Brooklyn.
Placebo at Brooklyn Steel
Of course subject matter aside, Placebo are excellent at hooks and their anthemic choruses make them a band people can sing along with live. Olsdal was energetic throughout the show, extolling the crowd to clap at times. Molko is in my opinion an underrated and under-discussed guitarist, who gets vicious tones from his stable of guitars and surgical downpicking.
There were some older tunes interspersed throughout, including “Bionic” off their debut and “Slave To The Wage” from Black Market Music. My favorite Placebo song “Too Many Friends” made an appearance as well. The lyrics “all you people do all day is stare into a phone” was made particularly ironic, as Molko reiterated the band’s request for no phones after that number. It is of course their prerogative to make such a request, and as Molko told Vice last year, “We’ve had shitloads of time to think about the demands that are placed on us—being photographed and fetishised and surveilled—and how it makes us feel.” But in this day and age of Instagram, it can take a little prodding for an audience to play along.
The three song encore consisted of new track “Fix Yourself” bookended by two covers: Tears For Fear’s “Shout” and Kate Bush’s “Running Up THat Hill,” a song which is having a bit of a renaissance, but that Placebo covered way back in 2003. After some extended playing around with noise and pedals, the night was over. Some audience members were doubtlessly wondering where the hits from Without You I’m Nothing had gone, but as a band still moving forward, that too is Placebo’s prerogative.
Scroll down for setlist, pics of the show (photos by Kate Hoos)
Setlist: Forever Chemicals, Beautiful James, Scene of the Crime, Hugz, Happy Birthday in the Sky, Bionic, Twin Demons, Surrounded by Spies, Chemtrails, Sad White Reggae, Try Better Next Time, Too Many Friends, Went Missing, For What It’s Worth, Slave to the Wage, Song to Say Goodbye, Come Undone, The Bitter End, Infra-Red Encore: Shout (Tears for Fears cover), Fix Yourself, Running Up That Hill (Kate Bush cover)