Irony is a four-letter word. In the last decade or so, the term has become more or less synonymous with camp, with kitsch, and above all with insincerity. This, in the age of Starsailor, Anastacia, Emo-Core and the current hegemony of bovine, mono-meaning "sincerity", may be too late to alter. But there is, lest we forget, a more elevated, dignified definition of irony. The true ironist has their finely-tuned antennae forever open to the cruel serendipities, benign synchronicities and unexpected parallels thrown up by modern culture. They are unafraid to frolic in the playground of meaning, making joyful post-modern (another "discredited" term, so we are told) juxtapositions, forming bold new attachments between the signifier and the signified.
The Pet Shop Boys, in this most refined sense, have always been ironists par excellence. Who else, two years after the collapse of the USSR, could take "Go West", a forgotten Village People non-hit, and, with the aid of a video filmed in the Constructivist style of a Soviet propaganda short, turn it into a poignant commentary on the doomed optimism ("Life is peaceful there/In the open air ... We can be what we want to be/This is our destiny") with which the former communist peoples, so willingly leapt from frying pan to fire? Pop critics, the platitude goes, are all frustrated performers. And it's not without truth. (At 14, I wanted a job like Neil Tennant's. I got one. At 34, I want a job like Neil Tennant's.) There are no better advertisements for making the transition than Tennant, who presided as editor over the golden age of Smash Hits before hooking up with Chris Lowe to form the greatest ever synth duo, giving the world nigh on two decades of arch, calculated – and utterly moving – pop.
For this tour, a radical departure from the Michael Clark extravaganzas of the past, PSB are slumming it in small university venues. The rider is a cooler of Beck's, a basket of Aeros and a few bags of chips (there's champagne backstage, but only because a pair of devoted fans delivered it), and they're staying – at Lowe's insistence – in modest railway hotels. However, rumours of PSB "going indie" are thankfully wide of the mark. There's a live percussionist, a guitarist from Levitation, but tonight's show is still sublimely synthetic.
For Neil Tennant – the world's least stereotypical north-easterner – this is the nearest thing to a homecoming gig (many of the extended Tennant clan are in attendance), and he dedicates the forthcoming B-side "Sexy Northerner" ("It's not all fags and football") to the Teesside audience, whom he has in the palm of his hand. Tracks from the forthcoming album are interspersed evenly with beloved hits ("Being Boring", "Love Comes Quickly", "New York City Boy", "West End Girls"), and by the time we reach "Go West", Tennant is employing the crowd as an unpaid backing choir. It's easy to quibble with the setlist – I'd have loved "So Hard", "Domino Dancing" and "Rent" – but when they encore with a mannered, marvellously mechanical version of Eddie & The Hot Rods' "Do Anything You Wanna Do", Tennant and Lowe could get away with anything. They've been getting away with it all their lives.
Diminutive, reclusive underground enigma Bobby Conn was born Robert Robert Conn 34 years ago in another city which, like him, is so good they named it twice. At some point, so the legend goes, he served time in a Maryland state pen for mail fraud, decided he was in danger of becoming the Anti-Christ, and became a born again Christian. He relocated to Chicago, where he began his lone crusade to spread the gospel of anti-capitalism and liberation theology by using immaculate saccharine pop.
Conn is a pop fantasist, the type who conceives the perfect record in his head – "imagine if David Bowie could do a Prince falsetto, and roped Phil Spector in as producer", you can picture him thinking – and by sheer force of will, makes it a reality. Perversely, in a set over an hour long, we don't get his new single "Winners", the standout track from last year's The Golden Age, which sounds like the Minneapolitan Midget's own "Kiss" (does it really go "So come on over in your Range Rover/And take it up the arse"?). But we do get "Never Get Ahead", the one that sounds like "I Want You Back" by The Jackson Five, and a band who look like a gay Wizzard and all wear shell suits. That's entertainment.
The world, by now, is accustomed to rappers being white, and rappers being female. But both? The crowd at the hip-hop night of this year's NME Carling Awards aren't sure, and Princess Superstar, a dishwater blonde dominatrix with a mouth like an ashtray and a mind like a sewer, is clearly too much for some. When she strips down to next-to-nothing then zips herself up in Marianne Faithfull leathers, the girls think she's a slut (doesn't the Astoria have mirrors in the Ladies'?) The last laugh will be hers. Princess is on the brink of scoring a surprise hit with the hilarious and awesomely addictive "Bad Babysitter", and next time around, they'll be begging her to work overtime.
As if to reinforce the point, she's followed by Dilated Peoples, who could scarcely be more generic if they tried. Hip-hop has never been known for value for money when it comes to live shows. Novelty southern fatboy Bubba Sparxxx does nothing to restore its VFM reputation, performing fewer songs than you'd expect for a quid on your average pub jukebox. After the first number, the pre-show Elvisburgers with cheese start playing havoc with his dicky colon, and he has to retire to take a dump.Reuse content