It's a Mad World
The Darkness
Cambridge Corn Exchange and Newcastle O2 Academy
December 2019

I passed up the opportunity to review the Darkness for R*E*P*E*AT at the Boat Race In 2002 (dearly departed 200 capacity venue for non-Cambridge folk, now a soulless gastro something). Ever the whirlwind of embarrassing contradictions, I'd taken umbrage at the influx of "The" bands knocking about at the time, wilfully ignoring the fact that my own band was a "The" band and far worse than most. Thankfully, it took me a further ten years to discover The The by which point I'd gotten over it. Needless to say I was an idiot and that fact was hammered home the following summer when I first came across Growing on Me.

Pic : Michael Bond - more here

The wall of Marshall stacks, the shot gun Les Pauls, the cat suit, the solos, the melody, the screaming falsetto, all made me realise that everything else was inconsequential and that all bands and all music should fundamentally be comprised of these things and these things alone.

Christmas came around and I found myself sat in my bedroom listening to the top 40. Never an avid chart archivist, it was unusual for me to bother. But this chart was different. Christmas Time (Don't Let the Bells End) was odds on favourite for number one and I was excited. Having sat through the dross (not a contraction of Diana Ross though could be deployed where useful), number two was coming up and I was giddy. Then those drums and that opening solo ripped into life and (I may be misremembering these details) I was physically sick and all the angels fell from heaven. Mad World? Sorry, Mad World? Damn right it was a Mad World. Honestly. What was wrong with everyone? Knowing what we know now, such appalling public decisions may not come as a surprise but, generally, I felt we could be trusted back then. It was a disgrace.

Fast forward 16 years, I have a job, a mortgage and I'm wedded to a beer belly with little ones on the way. Much has changed, but I am still livid at that 2003 Christmas injustice. So when Rosey asked If I would like to redeem myself and review the guys at Cambridge Corn Exchange a couple of weeks ago, it was an opportunity to right a personal wrong and to re-cast my vote for exuberance, excess, entertainment, glamour and guitars. For Rock and Roll. To make doubly sure my vote would be counted I also went along to the O2 Academy in Newcastle a week later.

Starting both shows with current album Easter is Cancelled in full, the band are aware of course that a large part of the audience are there for I Believe in Thing Called Love and "the Christmas one" with Justin declaring half way through the first set in Newcastle "we've got about 20 minutes left of this, a quick break and then we'll play the ones you like". But Easter is Cancelled is a grower and came to life live.

Opening with the suitably bombastic Rock and Roll Deserves to Die, it's clear this is a band meticulously writing and performing music that they love. It's over the top, in your face and, on first listen, frankly jarring. That's not to say pastiche, a criticism often levelled at the band over the years. They undoubtedly take what they do extremely seriously and the execution is exquisite. Justin's voice continues to defy gravity and the band don't put a foot wrong.

Anthemic rock ballad Heart Explodes evokes mass communication era Kings of Leon but without the layer of bloated commercial cynicism dragging it into the mire. Deck Chair, complete with instrument swapping, demonstrates that they are as comfortable in Edith Piaf mode as they are breaking the sound barrier.

Pic : Michael Bond - more here

The highlight, however, is Justin's acoustic turn at We are the Guitar Men to close off the first half. His vocal dexterity, fully exposed, is breathtaking and the acoustic work flawless. Give that man a guitar, man! Oh he's got one, thank the Lord. At ease.

Second half and all the big back catalogue hitters come out to play. One Way Ticket... left me cold back in the day but here it stands shoulder to shoulder with its Permission to Land siblings in righteous acceptance. Growing on Me makes me organically shout "Yeeeeessssss" (not very inventive in my old age) and Japanese Prisoner of Love and Solid Gold from 2017's Pinewood Smile slide into the hits set with reptilian ease, so much so in Newcastle that the chorus of the latter is repeatedly chanted by a pocket of punters between each song much to the bewilderment of the band.

Permission to Land is an album of singles and I find myself pathetically sulking as some tracks don't make the cut. Black Shuck, Friday Night, Love on the Rocks with No Ice, all benched this time out. Such strength in depth is the headache of champions I guess. There is room, however, for Givin' Up (both mine and Dan's favourite as it turns out), Get Your Hand's off My Woman, Love is Only a Feeling and, of course, I Believe in a Thing Called Love which unites the corporate Christmas party goers and the die hards in shameless air guitar ecstasy.

Pic Mark McGrogan - more here

And then it's time for "the Christmas one" to send us on our way. Justin halts the first verse to politely instruct the audience to put away phones and join hands. We dutifully do, with friends and strangers alike and the glee is palpable.

It's a mad, dark, divided and depressing world we live in. But, at the risk of sounding reductionist, music can bring us together. The Darkness know that and now 2000 odd people in Cambridge and Newcastle have been reminded of that fact also. Out of the darkness into the light, entertainment for the masses and Justin for PM.

Dickleburgh James

Thanks to Warren at Chuff Media for arranging things.