The Charlatans London Docklands Arena
Half a year ago in Brixton, the crowd raised the roof before the Charlatans had even arrived. When they did, the band kept the mood more exhilarated than I've ever experienced, a controlled fever of celebration of mostly new songs, explosively adored. It was a high-wire act, a mood you knew had to topple eventually. Five or six songs in, it did. But it showed what the Charlatans had suddenly become, after almost a decade: the most loved band in Britain.

In the Docklands on Saturday, the high wire has been taken down, the battle has been won. In a cavernous arena, it's mopping-up time. It's the Charlatans largest-ever headline crowd - 8,000. It should be their equivalent of Oasis at Knebworth, or Blur at Alexandra Palace. But it feels like the flat time afterwards; the thrill of a band's arrival replaced by a known quantity. There's something almost dutiful about the way the crowd wander in, something unpleasant about the way they're herded home.

Tim Burgess, reduced to video for most, seems aware of the problem, looking disgruntled, snapping his fingers to jolt his mood. Typically, the only adornment the happiest band in Britain could think of for their swollen stage is Christmas lights. All they really have to offer is their songs, and it's nearly enough. It doesn't matter where they drag them from, from 1989's Some Friendly, to this year's Tellin' Stories. Each song they play sounds like their greatest hit, a career's high points ruthlessly mined. "Just Lookin" makes the crowd roar along. "One to Another" makes them leap in the air, pound the corporate floor.

Though it's the same set as six months ago, the Charlatans' relentless on-the-road drilling has improved them. "Sproston Green", from that eight- year-old debut, shows how much they've grown. Its old baggy lope is now a disciplined, delirious sound, an equal to the Chemical Brothers' "Private Psychedelic Reel", proof that, though they obsess over the Sixties, there's something in the Charlatans' spirit that will always keep their rock 'n' roll modern.

It's all you could ask of a band. The Charlatans haven't changed. They're still one of the constant bright spots in British pop. Tellin' Stories is still the most purely pleasurable album of the year, the sharpest reminder of why pop music exists. They show you what you can be. But, spread through so many people, cossetted by songs a year old or more, that spirit feels uncomfortably thin. It's the world that's changed. The Charlatans can no longer surprise it. The band should take their Christmas lights home and ponder how to spark our hearts again.

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