The Darkness, Alexandra Palace, London

You don't get much bigger than this
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The Independent Culture

For their opening number - a touching tale of a lusty reunion with an ex, entitled "Knockers" - Justin Hawkins emerges suspended above the audience perched upon on a pair of humongous fibreglass breasts of a bra size which, to the naked eye, is approximately 380ZZ, with nipples that glow in the dark.

(There's a recurring mammary theme to the show, with a foreshadowing reference to "manboobs" before Justin eventually strips off to reveal his own 33 per cent extra free torso, attributed to two years of hard drinking: "In the old days this was what I'd have called a 'ribbed physique'. Now I give you the Beer Gut of Fury!") Brother Dan, however, hasn't changed at all: still a windmilling blur of corkscrew hair atop a Thin Lizzy T-shirt, and drummer Ed Graham is still his cuddly badger-browed self.

I'll say now, once and for all, that it's a shame about Frankie. But these things happen: no great band carries a full tray all the way without spilling a pint. And former bassist Poullain's replacement, Richie Edwards, takes to his role like the proverbial duck to the proverbial water. With his shaven head, muscular, pushing-seven-foot frame, black vest and leather rock-god trousers, he looks like the bad guy in a wrestling match who should be threatening allcomers with a smackdown (belying his offstage demeanour as a sweet, funny guy). He absolutely bosses the stage-left flank. You'd think he'd been doing this for years.

But back to those knockers. There can be few bands in rock history who've had so many people queuing up - like the hysterical woman in Airplane! - to slap them down. The Darkness backlash began before the frontlash had even got off the ground. This is nothing new; they've lived with it since Day One.

However, press reports of their demise are premature. One Way Ticket To Hell... And Back may have entered the charts at a comparatively low position amid the pre-Christmas congestion, but it's already crept stealthily towards platinum status. It's that kind of album. Instantly impressive, magnificent and awe-inspiring in its ludicrously OTT production, it was initially difficult to love (compared to the simpler pleasures of Permission to Land), but sneaks up on your heart when you're not paying attention. To coin a phrase, it's really growing on me.

And tonight's triumphant comeback show (their first in London since Christmas 2004) shows that regardless of the vicissitudes of critical fashion, there will always be a demographic who will adore this band who - so sue them! - dare to put a smile on the audience's faces. It makes perfect sense: The People's Band in The People's Palace.

For all the showmanship and all the props - the diabolical ibex horns around the drum riser, the satanic trident forks which form the lighting rig, the enormous church organ (utilised for the Bach's Toccata intro to "English Country Garden") and Justin's collection of spectacular guitars (a white one whose curlicues echo Prince's pride and joy in Purple Rain and a lime green monster with a fretboard which lights up) - The Darkness have always been a band with a heart.

And, for all the knob gags and drug humour on the new album, there are genuinely moving songs about ageing, reunions and regrets (notably the power ballads in the "erection section", "Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time" and "Blind Man"). The Darkness are at their best, though, when using humour and poignancy together. Exhibit A: "Friday Night" (my favourite song on Permission To Land). Exhibit B: "Dinner Lady Arms" (my favourite on One Way Ticket).

No other band can do what they do. No other band so thoroughly satisfies the public need for fist-in-the-air rock'n'roll kicks. No other band leaves your throat so raw from screaming along, and your face aching from grinning so much. That's why, as Hawkins Senior exits the stage - soloing to "Bald" while hoisted aloft by a trapeze (naturally) - I'm certain that, knockers or no knockers, we ain't getting rid of this lot for another good decade yet.

s.price@independent.co.uk

World tour continues to 22 April (www.thedarknessrock.com)

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