all words: Philip Runco; all photos: Stephanie Breijo
My friend Terrence went to a Darkness concert in Nashville seven years ago and everyone in attendance was decked out in glam rock regalia. I mean, pretty much everyone.
Or so Terrence tells me as he opens a duffel bag full of tank tops and silver lamé pants and several species of animal print. The bag is large enough to necessitate rollers. It is as if he’s prepared for the possibility that the witness protection program might suddenly relocate him to the Velvet Goldmine.
Despite my unambiguous resistance to the idea of dressing up, he offers me piece after piece of antiquated clothing. His pants mercifully being too small, I humor him by donning an old baseball tee. That it’s a Guns N’ Roses shirt is a historical inconsistency I will gladly overlook.
Another friend who comes straight from work in slacks and an oxford doesn’t escape as easily. He ends up in vertically striped pants of multiple colors.
And off we head to the 9:30 Club, to witness the return of the Darkness.
Retrieving tickets at the box office, there’s nary a bandanna in sight, let alone anything remotely resembling the zebra-lined purple jacket that Terrence is wearing. It’s 8:45 pm, he reassures us; the true fans have long since arrived.
And he’s half right. Entering the club, opener Foxy Shazam is playing to nearly a full house. The Darkness is an hour from hitting the stage, but its audience is not leaving the prime positions to chance, even if that means listening to Foxy Shazam.
But there is absolutely no one dressed like Terrence’s archetypal “rocker.”
People were unsure what to make of the Darkness’ debut, Permission to Land, when it arrived in 2003. The album was finely calibrated, and the hooks were undeniable – “I Believe in A Thing Called Love” had enough to sustain three songs – but they flowed alongside currents of camp and parody. It was hard to tell the degree to which these four Brits were just taking a piss.
It’s easy to envision a Tennessee audience in 2004 turning back the clocks on its wardrobe when the band itself looked like it stepped out of 1974. If it was a joke, everyone was in on it.
On this Wednesday night all these years later though, it is quickly becoming clear that the personality of the Darkness’ audience has changed during the band’s hiatus. If there ever was a tension in how seriously to take the band, that conflict is appearing sufficiently resolved: this audience is very serious about the Darkness.
This is not an audience of hipsters or self-aware ironists. This is not an audience that wears costumes. This audience’s appreciation of “Holding My Own” is wholly sincere and exists in a vacuum, free from spacecraft-humping interstellar octopi. This audience is very excited to see the Darkness, get plastered, and maybe throw a punch or two.
This audience is radiating testosterone. A fight erupts during the first song.
When Terrence leaves to take a picture with someone a few yards away, his spot is filled by a young blonde woman and a boyfriend who is wobbly with intoxication and looks like Das Racist’s Heems with a more pronounced pompadour. Displeased with her newly obstructed view, Terrence’s girlfriend engages the two in a conversation that quickly grows heated.
When Terrence and his Willy Wonka-on-safari pimp jacket return, Heems is looking like a bewildered and angry bull that’s been jolted several times with a cattle prod. He’s seeing all red. The two immediately launch into a confrontational dialogue that teeters on the edge of an altercation for several minutes before the two suddenly begin hugging each other.
“What the hell did you say to him?” I ask as Terrence turns back to me.
“I told him, ‘May the gods of rock shine upon us,'” he informs me, sounding very, very serious. His face has the laser beam intensity of Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker”. Then he cracks a smile: “And he fucking loved it.”
The lights dim and massive banner emblazoned with band’s name unfolds in the background. Church organ and choral music begin pumping through the speakers. Fog machines are operating at full capacity. No one has ever accused the Darkness of subtlety. This is, after all, a band that began that began its second record with a minute of pan flute and the sound of someone blowing lines of cocaine.)
On cue, the crowd begins to collectively lose its shit and is further set into a frenzy with the opening chords of Permission to Land’s “Black Shuck”.
The Darkness will visit all ten of the record’s songs over the course of the set, and as if to further accentuate its preference towards its earlier years, it will also play three b-sides from the LP’s singles. In comparison, it will showcase a total of two from its proper sophomore effort, One Way Ticket to Hell… And Back (“One Way Ticket”, “Is It Just Me”), which is kind of a shame since some underrated material goes ignored (“Hazel Eyes”, “Girlfriend”).
The Darkness’ video for “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us”, the advanced single from the forthcoming but as yet unannounced comeback record, is mostly a cartoon. It contains a young girl filmed in live action, but the band is animated throughout. Watching the Darkness, this decision makes sense: there’s something grotesque about what frontman Just Hawkins has become.
He looks chewed up and spit out. He’s skin and bones, with nipples pierced and a body that doubles as a canvas for tattoo artists. He looks like Scott Weiland combined with an Alexander Dumas novel. He looks like Marlowe’s Mephistopheles after a weekend at Burning Man. He looks like a guy who went to rehab after spending £150,000 on cocaine in a three-year stretch.
He still hits all the ridiculously high notes and can rip a solo with the guitar behind his head, but there is very little joy in what he’s doing. There’s a slight but tangible nastiness that creeps into his tone when he speaks to the audience. “Yeah, this is the fucking legendary 9:30, isn’t it?” he asks, and its hard to tell if he’s pleased or dissatisfied with the crowd.
Maybe there’s a bitterness that comes from a half decade of solo misfires, or from being sober and performing so many songs about getting smashed, but the goofy smile that once rarely left his face has all but melted away.
You can’t fault him for lack of effort though. Hawkins is very keen on delivering a big performance: jumping on speakers, inciting clap-alongs and hand-waiving, and riding a bouncers shoulders through the crowd while playing a wireless guitar during a fifteen-minute rendition of “Love on the Rocks with No Ice.” He even changes wardrobe several times, from a leather American flag jumpsuit to a prison-stripped catsuit to a particularly tight pair of vest and jeans.
This eagerness to please is also reflected in the sprawling 21-song setlist. It’s hard to criticize a band for giving its fans too much, but the band could have stood to drop a few of those b-sides, or left unanswered the question of what the Darkness sounds like covering Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”. (Answer: pretty similar to Metallica’s “Unforgiven”.)
It also uses the opportunity the middle of the set to road test some new songs: “She’s Just a Girl, Eddie” (about drummer Ed Graham), the entirely falsetto “Concrete”, “Everybody’s Having a Good Time”, and the aforementioned “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us”. These songs are short and hard-charging, not appearing on first listen to have a whole lot of breathing room, and certainly avoiding the lush and ornate pop indulgences of One Way Ticket to Hell… And Back.
It’s during this stretch that the life is slowly being sucked out of the room, but the Darkness wisely resuscitates it with the familiar trifecta of “Givin’ Up”, “Stuck in a Rut”, and closer “I Believe in a Thing Called Love”.
The Darkness have an hour-long set in them that would obliterate a festival audience. It even nails the softer moments (Justin Hawkins’ solo rendition of “Holding My Own”, monster power ballad “Love is Only a Feeling”), but over a 90 minute set, those moments aren’t coming often enough, and the barrage of tightly-coiled solos and cymbal crashes have a numbing effect.
Still, a reunited Darkness is something I’ll take, for as long as the gods of rock shine continue to upon us.