The Darkness, Waterfront, Norwich
Arctic Monkeys, Don Valley Bowl, Sheffield
Ten years after their first gig, the anti-Radiohead band has fans of Britrock grinning once more
Sunday 12 June 2011
Three words are all it takes.
After the Highlander theme subsides, and opening jam "Bareback" shudders to a halt, Justin Hawkins approaches his mic and, as he did at every gig The Darkness ever played, issues the call-and-response greeting "Gimme a D! Gimme an 'Arkness!".
As I'll never tire of reminding people, I "discovered" The Darkness 10 years ago, playing a small pub in Kentish Town, and wrote their first review in this very column. What first impressed me was their audacity, playing shameless headbanger riffs and pulling over-the-top stadium rock moves, even though they were playing to a double-figure audience. Tonight, they've come full circle, hilariously firing off arena-scale confetti cannons in the low-ceilinged Waterfront.
The Darkness story is a classic tale of the rise, fall and – we shall see – rise again of a great British rock band, with all the narrative elements of a Hollywood drama: dizzying ascent to fame, undreamt-of success, drug addiction and rehab, fraternal rifts, splinter groups and the emotional reconciliation.
It was at a gig by one of those splinter groups, Hot Leg, in Brighton in 2009, that Justin cajoled a reluctant Dan Hawkins to join him on stage for "I Believe in a Thing Called Love", prompting rumours of a reunion. We always knew they'd patch it up. Brothers always do. When they high-five each other during a solo tonight, it's like they'd never been apart.
With his waxed musketeer moustache and goatee, and twice as many tattoos, Justin is in some ways a new man, in other ways not. His costume change into a leather catsuit proves there's no danger of a demure, downbeat Darkness this time around.
Cult hero and handclap co-ordinator Poullain, with his Hair Bear Bunch afro, is the secret star of the show, a man whose piratical essence goes beyond mere bandannas: at the London gig, I'll run into a friend of his, a kind of Latin-American Howard Marks, whose tales of drug-running in Bolivia verify that the more lurid passages in Poullain's autobiography Dancing in the Darkness are no fiction.
And Dan, despite walking on in a silk shirt, changes into his trademark Thin Lizzy T-shirt halfway through, easing fears of some sort of ravens-leaving-the-Tower calamity if he got through a whole gig without it.
Hearing immortal pop-rock classics such as "Growing on Me", it's clear that my initial diagnosis a decade ago – "AC/DC fronted by a young Freddie Mercury" – was only two-thirds of the story. The Darkness had songwriting skills straight out of the Andersson/Ulvaeus handbook. For every daft, dog-based horror yarn like "Black Shuck", there's something as affecting as "Friday Night" or "Love Is Only a Feeling". And the new material on show, "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us" (actually an old but unrecorded song), "Concrete" and "Cannonball", with their chunky riffs and hysterical falsetto vocals, are hewn from the same rock as their prime works.
At this almost home-town gig there's much local chat from Lowestoft-bred Hawkins, taunting Ipswich Town and playing the finale "Love on the Rocks with No Ice" in a retro Norwich City trackie. There's also a spontaneous crowd singalong of "Christmastime (Don't Let the Bells End)" because the band won't play it, and Justinian thumbs-up salutes throughout.
The Darkness were always the anti-Radiohead, putting a grin on Brit-rock's face when it had become desperately miserable, and their re-emergence into ropey old 2011 couldn't be more timely. After a five-year hiatus, there's a well of latent affection out there, and for all their haters, an unmistakable feeling that we need The Darkness in our lives. After tonight, I believe they can do it.
Arctic Monkeys' comeback kicks off with two nights at a big arrowhead-shaped marquee erected in the back yard of the temporary home of Rotherham United, whose ground, Millmoor, has been strangled by Japanese knotweed. Were I half as clever as Alex Turner thinks he is, I could twist all that into a metaphor because the Sheffield band are engaged in a classic art-versus-commerce tussle.
It's hard not to sympathise. On Arctic Monkeys' fourth and least horrible album Suck It and See (appalling title), Turner has abandoned his stereotypical surly Northerner act. The fake tales of South Yorkshire are outnumbered by lyrics that can reach beyond the student disco, and scritchy-scratchy schmindie is replaced by dignified Sixties melodies. Turner's time in the Walker Brothers-inspired Last Shadow Puppets hasn't gone to waste.
As they try to sell beauty to a bestial audience, Arctic Monkeys' sales have declined. But a biker-jacketed Turner knows where his bread is buttered. "Let's start from the beginning," he says, and "View from the Afternoon" – album one, track one – sends the Topman lads into a frenzy. And it can't be denied: the Monkeys, less flimsy in the flesh, rock ferociously through a run of their early material. But after the restrained, Smithsy "Cornerstone", Turner almost apologises for the low-key mood, and similarly gentle Suck It and See opener "She's Thunderstorms", their best song yet, goes over worst. Conversely, he barely needs to sing a word of "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor" rattles the guy-ropes.
An easy home win, and Turner probably feels dirty in the dressing room afterwards, but they all count.
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