Meltdown: Madness, Royal Festival Hall, London
Thursday 23 June 2011
When Ray Davies saunters on in a dapper silver-grey suit to welcome Madness to Meltdown, the band's fans cheer in delight. They understand The Kinks' influence on these subsequent specialists in North London working-class bittersweet vignettes. Saxophonist and non-singer Lee Thompson later jokingly checks if Davies has left the building, before a chucking-out-time pub version of "Where Have All the Good Times Gone". The real tribute comes as Madness stake their place in its tradition, with songs that are worldly-wise, sometimes weary and always for the underdog, played with rare confidence tonight.
Suggs is a debonair London gent himself these days. Unphased as the keyboard loops beefing up the sound regularly stutter to a stop, he leads a spirit of hilarity and camaraderie on-stage. The sense that Madness are seven old friends warms an audience of mostly similar age and backgrounds. These fans are jogging in the aisles for "My Girl". But before it, Madness play "Embarrassment", Thompson's 1980 song about initial family rejection of his sister's mixed-race child. "Now I'm feeling twice as older," Suggs sings, an encroaching of experience even into the band's adolescent lives summed up in "House of Fun".
The success of 2009's London concept album The Liberty of Norton Folgate helps weave this set together. "NW5" is a sunny love song written after three decades' experience. "Forever Young", dragged from a stygian East End corner in which Balkan brass meet Mike Barson's fairground keyboards, is already greeted as an old favourite. "Clerkenwell Polka", Chas Smash warns, "mentions socialism", and is an awful warning of the mess capitalism has left working-class people in. Karl Marx, after all, rests in a North London cemetery. The preceding 1979 song, "Bed and Breakfast Man", about an old friend who "earned all he ever had", has the same sympathies.
By the finale, "Night Boat to Cairo", Peckham's pearly king and queen and a stage invader lent a mic by Suggs to say his piece are among those dancing with the band. The conversational profundity of Labi Siffre's "It Must Be Love" and their own tribute to their families, "Our House", have brought tears before the party ends. It's always the way for this realistic but indomitable, great London band.
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