Madness, Earls Court, London
Friday 31 December 2010
When I saw Lee Thompson playing the saxophone while flying from the Hammersmith Odeon rafters in 1986, in what was then Madness's last gig, the prospects of them still playing to huge crowds in the 21st century seemed slim. Though one of the greatest British singles bands, their early, boisterous Nutty Boys image had made maturity hard, and the teenage public inexorably left them behind. The 1992 Madstock live show was a model for annual pension-plan reunions, but creative revival stumbled until 2008's fine concept album, The Liberty of Norton Folgate. Madness in 2010 are still selectively nutty, embracing their past with the new comfort of having a future.
Lee Thompson doesn't dangle from the roof this time – and the swaying, nutty middle-aged men happily crushed at the front are frequently fez-wearing, balder and beefier than in 1986. Some have brought children, making Madness fandom an inherited condition. Those kids spring into step in the sprightlier moments of "(Tomorrow's) Just Another Day", the first definitive suggestion on its 1983 release that the band had a reflective, melancholy side. The delicately mundane observation in "My Girl" that "I like to watch TV, every now and again" sounds strangely beautiful and the teenage mortification at condoms and sex in "House of Fun" is now rendered ageless. Film footage of the Houses of Parliament and Blitz-era kids by their tenement doors join a Flanagan and Allen dance move in nodding to the band's English tradition. It's left to a rare Norton Folgate song, "NW5", to offer middle-aged satisfaction at a life well-lived in your own patch of town.
Earls Court's cavernous wastes makes it one of London's least atmospheric venues. But the other, Jamaican tradition Madness absorbed in north London makes "Madness" and "The Prince" songs you can dance your surroundings away to. On "It Must Be Love", Madness allow their future to be forgotten, as the fans lustily sing out shared pasts. The band don't go one step beyond tonight. But sometimes good-hearted comfort is enough.
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