“Don’t Be Afraid Of The Darkness”
There are some bands whose live performances pale in comparison to their iconic studio albums. Than there are those bands whose concerts feel like a visceral and invigorating slap to the face, waking one up from the slumbers of mediocrity that constitutes the vast majority of modern music. Thankfully, the Darkness belongs to the latter category. Having become aware of the band during the release of their debut album “Permission to Land” from 2003, I must admit that it had been quite a few years since I had listened to one of their albums in its entirety. Their energized, organic and endearing performance at the Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo on Saturday April 9th reinvigorated my appreciation for these lads.
I was initially skeptical when I heard that the Darkness was performing at this venue. I couldn’t envision their bombastic presence translating well in this otherwise seated venue. As covered in last week’s interview with the iconic Peter Murphy, the Fremont Theatre is in the process of being repurposed. With further significant modifications having been made to the theatre in the last week alone (including the additional removal of multiple rows of seats, further opening up the floor to energized standing concertgoers), the venue’s march towards increasing capacity and coolness couldn’t have been inaugurated for a better concert than this. The timing was perfect as hundreds of fans stood up in front of the seated rows (no doubt, to the dismay of those who claimed seats thinking they would be in the “front row”) to get as close as possible to the band. And these non-sedentary fans’ strategic planning paid off, as they were later rewarded by ample “audience interaction” from lead singer Justin Hawkins throughout the performance.
Much has been already covered about the Darkness that I won’t go into here. However, what people might not be aware of is how resilient and cohesive this group appears on stage. There was nothing “boring” or predictable that one may presumably associate with a glam rock band with members committed towards healthy living and sobriety. The 17 song set was peppered with repeated audience interaction and participation. Justin channeled, in equal measure, the contorting physicality of Iggy Pop, the gender androgyny of David Bowie, the soaring and unwavering tenor voice of Freddie Mercury, a tinge of whimsy exhibited by an early Adam Ant and the commanding Charlie Chaplin-esque theatrics of Monkey from the Adicts. Justin’s unwavering voice was resonant throughout the entire performance and I swear this man could use his voice as a superpower (hopefully for good and not evil), breaking windows and stopping criminals with the subsonic frequencies emitted from his vocal chords. His singing ability is indescribable, not something you are accustomed to hearing from a mortal man. There is also an undeniable sexiness to Justin that even this largely heterosexual reviewer must acknowledge given its palpability in the room. And I’m not alone in my assessment. Many people I talked to after the show commented on the stage presence of Justin. It’s no wonder that SPIN magazine had previously listed him as the 35th “best frontmen of all time” (ranking higher than Elvis Costello, Chrissie Hyde, Chuck D, Jack White and Glenn Danzig and countless others!).
Bassist Frankie Poullain’s stage presence (from unrelenting bass strumming, cowbell playing and backup vocals) was another standout. Frankie is one cool cat, with his distinctive hair, handlebar mustache and slick attire contributing greatly to the band’s overall aesthetic and identity. Frankie’s smiles and nods to the audience also conveyed an aura of appreciation and gratitude. He looked like he was having fun. And although we didn’t get the opportunity to hear too much from Frankie’s mouth, hungry fans can read more of his thoughts and words from his autobiography he published in 2008 entitled “Dancing in the Darkness” (John Blake Publishing).
Highlights of the show included songs “One-Way Ticket” (with more cowbell thanks to Frankie), “Love Is Only A Feeling” (with layered percussive stylings thanks to Rufus Taylor, son of Queen drummer Roger Taylor) and “Friday Night” (with Justin sitting down at the keys like a lithe, introspective, young Elton John). There were also some very quotable moments abound, including Justin commenting about San Luis Obispo’s oft-referenced status (thanks to an author featured on the Oprah show many years ago calling it the “happiest place in America”) in which he reclaimed this mantra by proclaiming “There’s happiness wherever the fuck we are!” Justin wore many proverbial and literal hats during the performance, borrowing hats from fans in the front row, wearing them for a song or two, then tossing them back into the audience (sometimes to other fans to whom they didn’t belong….this led to some interesting crowd dynamics and interpersonal interactions that I won’t go into here). Justin also proverbially acted as peacekeeper and mediator, attempting to keep the peace between a couple of concertgoers who were arguing. By the end of the show, Justin had worn a plethora of various clothing items, including a small woman’s flannel shirt (which tore around his shoulders as he flexed his muscles like a glam rock Hulk) and his slipping into something “more comfortable” in the form of a very short pair of white shorts resembling underwear.
I am not engaging in hyperbole when I say that this was one of the most enjoyable concerts I can recall seeing in a long time and (from conversations after the show) most definitely the first (and hopefully not the last) truly “rocking” concert ever to take place in the 74 year history of this historic venue. I urge anyone who yearns for a lively rock n’ roll performance (with a healthy dose of swagger and dare I say, “beautiful chaos”) to grab a ticket to see these chaps perform. You will not be disappointed. For more info on their tour, check out: thedarkness.co.uk
Jason Reed Inner Edge Music
Postscript: Lastly, thanks to local celebrity and syndicated DJ and radio personality extraordinaire Jo Jo Lopez for hanging out with me in the front row and discussing our diverse interests in music before the band took stage. I think we’re probably in the minority of music fans who can giddily talk about our mutual love of the Darkness, 80’s indie rock, freestyle, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam and the prolific influence of Mr. Phil Collins in the same conversation without any tinge of hipster irony! In some circles, admitting this would eliminate any street cred we have, but I think that the beauty of a Darkness concert is that you can safely wear your heart on your sleeve (or your borrowed hat, torn flannel shirt….or even your white underwear-like shorts…) with no fear of judgment or admonition. That is a beautiful thing.