Gig review: THE DARKNESS – Reading Hexagon, 26 November 2021

THE DARKNESS- Reading Hexagon, 26 November 2021

Never mind the hysteria that surrounded them in the early 2000’s, proof of how quickly time marches lies in the fact that it now a full ten years since the Darkness triumphantly reformed at Download.

Since then they have surprised many critics by becoming a stable and consistent draw, if not on the scale of the initial mania, with a series of tours, festival appearances and albums. The latter include 2019’s ‘Easter is Cancelled’, which proved to be a Nostradamus-like prophecy, and the brand new ‘Motorheart’ (sic), which was being promoted on this generous month-long tour .

Originally British Lion were due to support but after a dispute over covid protocols were replaced by Massive Wagons, who I thought were a far more compatible pairing. However, a set length of just 30 minutes was something of an insult for a band who are in the ascendancy and likely to be headlining the same mid-sized venues before too long.

After a promising start with opener ‘In It Together’ with its closing ‘whoh-oh-oh’ hook, I thought they avoided their best songs with both ‘China Plates’ and ‘Pressure’ sounding punky and quite limited. ‘Banging on Your Stereo’ was the first of their many anthems to make the set but they surprisingly sandwiched within it covers of ‘I Fought the Law’ and ‘Surrender’.

Massive Wagons

Though singer Baz Mills, underdressed by his standards, was as hyperactive as ever, theirs was an oddly flat performance, certainly compared to their festival set at Stonedead in the summer where the atmosphere will live long in the memory. Granted, it is never easy operating with a headliner’s stage and sound set up and before their fanbase, but at least from my balcony vantage point, they were struggling to generate the usual enthusiasm that greets them.

The set ended on a glorious high with ‘Back To The Stack’, the Quo inspired anthem beginning with some great synchronised headbanging in front of the Marshalls, but that only drew attention to a puzzlingly lacklustre set in which many other possible crowd pleasers were left out.

Massive Wagons

The Darkness would have no such trouble winning over the crowd, their biggest challenge being so heavily featuring an album which had only just been released that week. A celtic-type intro,  bagpipe sounds and all, led into one such in ‘Welcome to Glasgae’ (sic),  but the place was swiftly rocking   with a surprisingly early ‘One Way Ticket’ (still the only song they ever play from that sophomore album) and ‘Growing On Me’, Justin Hawkins letting that love- it- or- loathe-it falsetto rip.

The singer, in an unusually sober black outfit that later gave way to a more familiar catsuit in a lurid sulphur yellow, then struck a blow for performers everywhere. Asking someone at the front their name, I thought he was going to launch into one of his regular routines, but he took their intrusive recording device away from them and placed it on the stage with its red light pointing down into the photographers pit for the rest of the set.

THE DARKNESS- Reading Hexagon, 26 November 2021

With his mood restored, the title track of the new album, liberally borrowing the riff of Queen’s ‘Stone Cold Crazy’ and featuring a roadie on cowbell and Justin playing some rare slide guitar, was the first but not the only number where they seemed much or heavier than before, with Rufus Taylor giving them a  much more powerful and aggressive drum sound.  Indeed parts of ‘Its Love, Jim’ had a dark bass heavy riff worthy of Sabbath while ‘Sticky Situations’ also had a flavour of Queen and included added acoustic guitar with Justin again on slide.

However ‘Permission To Land’ material could never be omitted  from the set without a riot (although the lengthy ‘Love on the Rocks…’. was a casualty this time) so there was plenty of fun with the likes of ‘Black Shuck’ and ‘Giving Up’, as Dan Hawkins wielded the solid but reliable riffs and rhythms that provide the backdrop to Justin’s more freewheeling style.  There were even bigger receptions for ‘Friday Night’ which had the crowd singing along even before the vocals started and ‘Love Is Only A Feeling’ with Justin leading the arm waving.

THE DARKNESS- Reading Hexagon, 26 November 2021

Of the new songs, none of which I’d managed to listen to before the show, ‘The Power And The Glory of Love’ was the catchiest with a crisp power pop feel and only ‘Eastbound’ which felt a bit disjointed failed to hit the mark for me.

There wasn’t an awful lot from the albums in between first and latest but ‘Open Fire’ had some great ACDC like riffing, ‘Heart Explodes’ was another with slight celtic overtones, and ‘Solid Gold’ showed that when they overcome their tendency to whimsy, the Darkness can write great straight ahead hard rock anthems.  Justin also had fun with the spoken word sections of ‘Barbarian’ which seems to be one of the few songs from that intervening period to have become an established crowd favourite.

THE DARKNESS- Reading Hexagon, 26 November 2021

‘Get Your Hands Off My Woman’ was preceded with some spontaneous banter with the crowd, including saluting a metalhead and asking to count the patches on his denim cut off, and a dedication read out for a fan at the front who had been into the band since introduced to ‘Permission to Land’ as a five year old and was now playing the 02 Academy with his own outfit.

After Dan and Justin teased with some fairly gentle guitar picking, the latter shouted ‘bounce f—ers’ as they played the opening riff to ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’ and there was an explosion of joy at a song that is instantly recognisable, well beyond the rock world,  yet never seems to get old.

THE DARKNESS- Reading Hexagon, 26 November 2021

I did think they were taking their time returning for an encore and the reason became clear as Rufus led them back on stage dressed as an inflatable Christmas tree, accompanied by bassist Frankie Poullain in what I surmised was a matching Widow Twankey costume. Justin for once was upstaged in a red outfit and Santa hat with Dan’s only concession to flamboyance a Marshall Christmas Jumper .

Yes folks, the inevitable encore was ‘Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End)’, not my favourite but a sure fire party hit to end the evening. It struck me that by touring at this time of year The Darkness are the successors to a disgraced seventies glam rocker and more recently Status Quo as guarantees of a good gig night out during the pantomime season (oh no they aren’t-Ed).

THE DARKNESS- Reading Hexagon, 26 November 2021

But to see them as just a novelty joke would be a great mistake- they have stood the test of time and without losing that eccentric and quirky edge, albeit turned down a notch these days, as serious musicians they are playing as well as ever.

Review and Photos by Andy Nathan

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