London is waiting. The giant clock above the city feels like with every tick closer to Christmas, it also gets closer to something more menacing. Rumbles of another lockdown shiver through the streets. As grassroots venues start cancelling gigs, I clutch my tickets for the 17th and almost resign myself to defeat, just waiting for that email of postponement.
The Darkness, Motorheart Tour
17th December, Shepherd’s Bush Empire
Words: Monty Sewell
Until I was stood, stomach pressed against the stage barriers with a pint in one hand and the sweat of a rock god covering the other, I would not get excited. But as I sit here typing with a sore neck and the beautiful grogginess of the day after clouding my eyes, I can confirm there was a show, it was phenomenal, and only a few tears of joy were shed.
The Darkness have been and will remain a firm favourite of mine. Their respectable, ongoing bi-annual album releases of tracks that somehow find that sweet spot between the ridiculous and the grandiose place them in an underrated spot by onlookers and an adored one by fans. Released earlier this year, the new album Motorheart was well received with enough high-quality tracks that I was sure would be a highlight of the evening.
Originally on the bill to support were Massive Wagons. I had the absolute pleasure of seeing them earlier in the year at the Download Pilot Festival and was thrilled to see them as a bonus alongside the main act. Unfortunately, the seemingly inevitable-at-some-point happened, and the band were forced to drop out of the tour. In their place came the Kris Barras Band. Ex-mixed martial arts fighter Barras is joined onstage by just one other member, multi-instrumentalist Josiah J. Manning, on guitar; the two provide a last-minute well put together acoustic set. It’s a far cry from their usually heavy toned shows, but they win the crowd over in minutes. If there’s one thing the virus has given the music industry, it’s moments like these: spontaneous, raw snippets of the music behind the band.
With Manning on the stompbox to set the rhythm, the two play an emotive thirty-minute set strung together by a Wild West blues twang – their harmonies both vocal and instrumental. There is a clear, trusting partnership between Barras and Manning as looks are exchanged before drop-offs or sporadic solos. On a stage as large as this, it’s a surprisingly intimate feel. As Barras re-introduces the band midway through after their fantastic Dead Horses (“we put this set together last minute, but it’s amazing to be here”), I can feel a real sense of accepting camaraderie from the audience. It’s desperate times, but the music scene will prevail if we continue to support its warriors. Barras and Manning finish the set in fine style with a cover of the classic All Along the Watchtower, their support slot hailed a triumph.
And thus, the lights come up as the room fills out to a comfortable capacity for the main event. A scattering of facemasks and Santa hats are noticeable amongst the crowd, and conversations are centred around the fact that this could be the last big gig for a while. So, when the lights dim, it’s every man for his own enjoyment in this possibly temporary final moment of headbanging indulgence.
The sound of bagpipes blasts out over the crowd, accompanied by that first rousing cheer for our rock-ready educators to take to the stage. For three minutes, it continues before that delicious baseline of Darkness veteran Frankie Poullain enters as the rest of the band do.
Welcome Tae Glasgae is a stellar opener. I can’t begin to imagine how it was when they played this in the titled city, which has been stated many times as a favourite of the band itself. Now let’s see if this London crowd can muster the same inspiring passion as our northern neighbours.
The band line-up remains the same, Justin Hawkins taking centre stage as usual on vocals and occasional guitar, brother Dan Hawkins on guitar, Poullain on bass and Rufus Taylor on drums. As usual, they leave no stone unturned when it comes to being visually appealing, though nothing quite compares to the ‘Mr Seventies’ vibe Poullain unflappably hosts with his turtleneck suave under a bouffant of ripely curled hair.
Flamboyant in both persona and style, Justin is chest out, sporting a black leather cap with a sleeveless leather waistcoat and signature flares. Dan is once again the modest proprietor of the group in a black jacket, t-shirt and jeans, and Taylor is the golden-haired backdrop who holds as much attention on his high-rise platform as any brilliant drummer would.
With just enough room for applause, The Darkness launched into the title track of their second album, One Way Ticket to Hell. The seemingly downward turn in the initial, star shot days of their career, it’s the only song they include from the album, but my god, it’s a good one. Having slipped my way through to the front righthand side of the stage, I become just another body jumping up and down to that insatiable beat.
For those who have also spent the past few months attending every gig that they could, it can be agreed that you end up with some sort of Richter scale of band quality. It’s subjective to taste, of course, but The Darkness have this out and open quality as a seasoned band at work. There is a fire but also an obvious dedication to the rehearsed art of a flawless show.
For all his falsetto madness, it can be easily forgotten that Justin also champions as a semi-lead guitarist. He slices his way through One Way Ticket, ending with a teasing solo that vibrates towards that classic smash ending. The first word spoken by the frontman all night is a well put ‘YEAH!’ followed by a “GIVE ME A D… GIVE ME AN ARKNESS!” The audience chants back, and the simplicity is magnificent. It is honestly all the words that need to be said and with that, Growing On Me starts, reminding us, yet again, why we fell in love with The Darkness in the first place.
The band break into the titular Motorheart’ again with barely a minute to catch our breath. I take a break from my overly enthused bouncing about to look at those around me. When a band has been going on for as long as The Darkness, it’s always interesting to see how each new album is received by their audience. Will they be castigated for not staying ‘true to their roots’ or frowned upon by ‘not trying something new’? In this case, they seemed to have hit the mark. The general ‘pogoing’ continues alongside smiling faces singing the chorus word for word. It’s at this point a man in a policeman hat comes on stage whacking a cowbell. We have no idea who he is until later in the set, but we accept it, and it adds nothing but beautiful madness.
Open Fire is up next. This song has always reminded me of The Cults She Sells Sanctuary, purely for those dripping guitar tones under a sea of roaring vocals. Justin is as comfortable in his stage presence as ever, drenching us in his darting movements in a restrained yet free pacing of the stage. You can tell he is never more at ease than in front of an audience.
Another beer in (we must milk every second for what’s it’s worth), and it’s into ballad territory. The Darkness do have a knack for this which is wonderfully clear amongst the singing gig-goers around me. Justin guides the audience through Sticky Situations with a classic arm sway to which we honourably abide. The cowbell man returns, this time in a leopard print coat playing acoustic guitar, a notable subplot emerging but yet to be explained.
Justin then takes to the mic to ask if any of the audience has seen any other dates in their tour, “for a more detailed breakdown of the places we’ve played: go and buy a t-shirt from the merch which has the dates on the back and when you do that, marvel at it, for the achievement that it is because every other band in the world has just gone down with Covid-19, saying we can’t do this anymore, BUT NOT THE DARKNESS!
“We’ve bubbled up, and we’re fucking making it! We did it, in the name of rock, you guys! But tonight, my friends, we’re giving up giving a fuck!”
Queue Givin Up from their 2003 Permission to Land album and now Poullain now has control of the cowbell. By this point, I almost don’t want an explanation for it. It’s a good time, and therefore it’s alright by me.
It’s All Love Jim is another great showcase of their new material that leads into a playful instrumental intro into Black Shuck, where Justin disappears from the stage to a blue shimmering light only to re-appear in a gold, navel revealing catsuit with tassels. I kid you not when I say that in all my years of watching bands make faux-par wardrobe choices, this look works.
Once the roaring riptides of Black Shuck end, we are finally let into the great secret of the cowbell man, aka Ian “Soft Lad” Norfolk, dubbed by Justin as “the most talented member of our household.” It’s the kind of inner circle bliss that, when shared, creates an entirely new intimate dynamic with a band and its audience.
Heart Explodes follows, again demonstrating their gift for the epic. Every break is accompanied by cheers, and so far, my checklist has had one down (my ribcage is taking a well-earned hit from the stage barriers) and one to go.
“Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday….” It’s any Darkness fans guess as to which song was played next. We all, of course, end that line with a “Dancing On A Friday night!” Without sounding too on the nose, it did hit a certain chord being played on an actual Friday and within seconds of the band diving into Friday Night with full vigour, my checklist was complete in all its sweaty glory.
Love Is Only A Feeling shoots right through the heart before the band jump into Japanese Prisoner Of Love. Another one of Justin’s spread-eagle jumps are accompanied by a Swiss army knife exchange of guitars completed by our now new accepted member of The Darkness, Mr Ian “Soft Lad” Norfolk. Any friend of The Darkness is a friend of ours, right?
A well-timed, momentary pit-stop at the bar, and I’m back at the front. Solid Gold is one of those tracks where you must take it or leave it. “Never gonna stop, shitting out solid gold!” resonates quite well in these times. Dan brings around a brilliant solo as Poullain wields his bass around the stage like a string induced detonator.
Barbarian and Get Your Hands Off My Woman are equally fine in the lead up to their final number. Even Jane from the office can guess what their final song is but despite its obvious mainstream popularity, there’s an honest sincerity that without it, this has been a bloody good show. So as Justin takes to the microphone and says, “please don’t film it, it’s nice if we just take part, I want to see everyone bouncing,” it’s not even a question of a doubt.
The opening riff raises the roof as I Believe In A Thing Called Love tears the place apart, the noise onstage and off enough to shake the foundations of this famed London venue, the triumph complete.
There can only really be one song for the encore, given the season and The Darkness have certainly come for the occasion. Emerging from the wings, we are greeted with the sight of Santa hats for the Hawkins brothers, a full-on Christmas Tree costume for Taylor and what can only be described as a mermaid sumo wrestling suit for Poullain.
Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End) is the perfect end to a great night. As the guys play their final notes, the sky fills with confetti, and there is a genuine sense of gratifying joy. What many people forget is that The Darkness have done what most could only dream of: released a debut album rock single into mainstream focus, got a guitar solo on the radio in 2003 and released a Christmas song that has been deemed worthy of a place among the Christmas classics.
As I untie the laces of my beloved thickly-set leather boots and fall back onto my bed, staring at the smattering of rock legends plastered across my wall.
I cannot help but just think one thing: whether that was the last gig I see for a while or the first of many to come, God, it feels good to have live music back.
Note: Due to illness, MetalTalk were unable to send a photographer to this gig.
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