The Darkness, Alexandra Palace, London
Plenty of glitter, but little sparkle
Thursday 09 February 2006
In 2003, when The Darkness exploded on to the music scene with their debut album Permission To Land, the boys from Lowestoft were a refreshing return to rock as showmanship, rather than vehicle for angst and pain. Their retro template was Led Zep's riffs, Aerosmith stridency and David Lee Roth catsuits.
As its follow-up took longer to emerge, problems beset the band. The bassist, Frankie Poullain, was sacked, while the front man, Justin Hawkins, threatened to quit and broke up for a time with their manager, Sue Whitehouse. Debilitating drug habits were hinted at on the return single and album title track, "One Way Ticket to Hell... and Back". When the album arrived, it came with an overblown sound reminiscent of Queen's operatic style, ornamented with pan flute, bagpipes and tubular bells. The songs were less immediate, and the band's fortunes reached a nadir when Hawkins was booed at the World Darts Championship.
Perhaps they had refused to sanction Abba's Celtic-tinged instrumental "Arrival" as intro music, a backdrop of giant tusks and a humungous pair of breasts. That is what Hawkins arrived on, suspended in mid-air. Rather than gratuitous sexual imagery, this related to the opening number, "Knockers", in which the singer made light of his ropey bedroom skills. Even without stage props, it was a tremendous opening. The concise number showed off the tight musicianship that proved The Darkness could be more than a joke act.
It was a vibrant start that the band could not maintain. "Knockers" was followed by "One Way Ticket", Hawkins's most satisfying lyrics to date, let down only by a flat chorus. Then came the forthcoming single "Is It Just Me?", a fine update on Rainbow-era over-the-top emoting. This was one of a few new numbers that matched the sparkle of the band's breakthrough hit "I Believe In A Thing Called Love".
One Way Ticket reflected a tempestuous period for the band, but they were rarely able to transfer its subtlety into their pomp rock shtick. One exception was the acoustic-led "Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time". In front of an upright piano, Hawkins gave full vent to regret over his break-up. Wisely, the rest of the band sloped off for a far less effectual ballad, "Blind Man", stuck between shallow sentiment and Hawkins's dopey humour. "Is there anybody weeping?" he ventured. No, came the reply from anyone that had not escaped to the bar.
"Good Idea" was also a chance for the new bass player, Richie Edwards, to display his versatility with a guitar. Steady facing a huge crowd for one of his first performances, he also added eerie atmospheric sounds to break up the crunching Jimmy Page riff of "Black Shuck". The guitar play of Hawkins's brother, Dan, remained as sturdy as ever, though more intricate work was beyond their reach as the set dragged on. With pedestrian backing, the instrumental breaks of the power ballad "Love Is Only a Feeling" and "Love on the Rocks with No Ice" long outstayed their welcome.
It was the front man's lack of conceit that remained the band's strongest suite. Lame and uninspiring between songs, the fans still fell for his good-natured character. Their highlight, then, must have been when Hawkins stripped off his glittering top to reveal not a washboard stomach, but paunch and love handles. Only at the very end did the singer show true star quality when he flew over the crowd and performed a guitar solo upside down. For sheer spectacle, they remained impossible to beat.
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