Photos By Nicholas Karlin, Words By Jesse Young
I remember my dad once observing something about George Thorogood & the Destroyers that stuck with me: “George Thorogood doesn’t understand irony. Even when other ultra-sincere acts like Bruce Springsteen play live, there’s always a winking acknowledgment that this is a very silly thing to be doing.”
To the casual observer, The Darkness are everything George Thorogood is not. And that’s kinda confusing to a lot of folks. For Americans who even remember the band, they were maybe a British joke-rock outfit (??) that last recorded “I Believe in a Thing Called Love.” They dressed in one-piece catsuits, sung in piercing falsetto, and tried to make the whole Queen-meets-Def Leppard thing happen for millennials.
The Darkness were and are a band that appreciates irony, and the outrageous theatricality of their 70s and 80s forebearers. They are not, however, a joke band. They do wild, silly things in the service of their music which, as fate would have it, remains quite excellent. Irony abounds, but so do epic twin Les Paul guitar solos.
And abound they did during a two-hour set at Fillmore Silver Spring on Sunday. This is a band that remains in astonishingly good form: frontman Justin Hawkins’ multi-octave range remains unblemished, and the band itself is incredibly tight and precise. But expertly-executed hard rock does not a great live band make. To illustrate, here are some of the things that Justin Hawkins did Sunday:
Invited several fans, including one ecstatic young woman in shorts named Carla, to serve as the band’s backup dancers for the better part of five songs. One fan-cum-dancer included an older British man named Ray with a knee injury.
A handstand on the drum riser while scissor-kicking his legs in time to the music like a gymnastic metronome.
Noted the fact that he’s wearing corrective adult braces.
Thanked the crowd for so being so helpful and cooperative, “…like a corgi. You’re like a collective corgi.”
After a ten-minute guitar solo played while roaming through the crowd on the shoulders of a strong-backed roadie, Hawkins enticed a young woman on stage to climb under the drum riser with said roadie and (faux) copulate until the song’s conclusion.
These things were all awesome and hilarious. And done by a band committed to making their anachronistic corner of the genre something more than sullen men in t-shirts playing guitars whilst staring at their shoes. Big, sweeping gestures married with big, sweeping music. But Pitchfork (surprisingly) has made this case far more effectively than I could.
The Darkness remain powerfully in the thrall of their first (and best) album (2003’s Permission to Land), which yielded a torrent of hits in the native UK. Nothing in their subsequent three albums matches the titanic heights of their debut, but that latter-day material still makes for solid and occasionally-inspired crunchy glam rock. “Open Fire,” from their latest effort, is propulsive fun that they’ve rightly reserved for their encore set.
Their stage dressing is designed to crowbar some arena-scale spectacular into the club-sized venues that they now play — big flood lights and enough stage smoke to amply supply several Andrew Lloyd Webber productions. Justin Hawkins himself was clad in a fantastic striped wide-lapel suit and suspenders that recalled David Bowie by way of Alice Carroll.
The Darkness’ audience — basically white dude rock nerds in their 30s — took a while to warm up to the band on Sunday, but eventually reached the point of chanting, giddy idiocy that an act like this rightly deserves. Hawkins remains an effortlessly superb frontman, alternately prowling and preening betwixt high-wire guitar solos.
It’s a shame that the band’s long hiatus between 2006 and 2011 cost them the mass American audience that might have awaited them otherwise. Hawkins’ struggles with cocaine and megalomania stunted the band’s career in a way that he clearly regrets. Even as a now-humbled rock star, he’s still having a blast up there. And it’s a delight to behold. Here’s to hoping the delights continue unabated.