Babyshambles, Kentish Town Forum, London
Friday 16 May 2008
Engagements between jail-time played to hardcore loyalists can't have been EMI's dream when they signed Babyshambles. But the glamour of Pete Doherty's notoriety is the most dispensable part of his ongoing drama. This first gig since Wormwood Scrubs includes all the other reasons the fans remain; the whiff of dangerous unpredictability mixes headily with genuine talent, making for a gripping spectacle.
Doherty enters looking a little more crumpled and uncertain of his moves than in his recent past. Babyshambles have been professionally "clean", potent and well drilled for nearly two years, and they stay so for a while. "Pipedown" rides on Mick Whitnall's high, querulous guitar and the punch of bass and drums. "Beg, Steal or Borrow" has the innocence of an early Sixties beat group. The bad feeling and betrayal in a Doherty lyric such as "UnBiloTitled" is trampled by speedy, huskily sung Who-style R&B. Doherty's most unique talent – for an endless gush of arcane English – becomes irrelevant.
The appearance of a top-hatted Shane MacGowan, a study in survival, makes Doherty leap with pleasure during a frisky "Dirty Old Town". But his mumbled stumble through Squeeze's "Cool for Cats" lights the touchpaper; the song seems about to sputter out, but Doherty keeps jerking it back into life before a dub, reverb-drenched, downhill careen into "Side of the Road". The penitent good behaviour of last year's arena tour and Shotter's Nation album is ditched, and the high-wire games begin.
Expanding, heavy near-instrumental thunder is followed by "Killamangiro", pulled open by a squeal of guitar; then, a promisingly melodic new song. "Crumb Begging Baghead" sees Doherty fall into a spidery crouch. "Albion" begins in shaky intimacy, and ends in a scorching organ solo, the song between (his best) given over to the crowd. The increasing risk of falling apart is the point.
And on "Fuck Forever", that danger becomes physical. As the crowd start a maul, one besuited stage invader drives Doherty back to the drum riser. While the man fights the crew on stage, Doherty lets out a wolfman howl and drags another fan on. True chaos seems imminent, but Doherty is able to conduct it. The chorus kicks in, the frenzy redoubles – and safety returns. Doherty ends the song bedraggled and jacketless, salutes his fans and leaves to a scream of guitar. He's given a glimpse of what rock was once for.
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