I have been lucky enough to attend a number of gigs since lockdown eased back in July. They have all been fun, full of great music and a sense of relief, but something indefinable has been missing. Or at least it was, until a snowy trek across from the Cotswolds to Cardiff for The Darkness, ably supported by Massive Wagons (previous support act British Lion having dropped out due to differences in commitment to covid safety).
Cardiff Great Hall isn’t my favourite venue by a long way. A flat hall, relatively low stage, poor acoustics, and student-run (and very expensive) bar often leading to a sterile environment. Coupled with bone-chilling weather and the aforementioned covid reluctance on behalf of crowds and I was expecting little more than a decent evening of music. That lasted until the force of nature that is Baz of Massive Wagons took the crowd by the scruff of the neck and shook them into life.
The high-energy rock of Wagons was surely a better fit than the Maiden bassist’s project (not a fan having seen them at Steelhouse) and their short set won more and more fans as it continued. Opening with a song that sums up what we have all been through, “In It Together” they hurtled straight into one of my favourites “China Plates” with its dig at social media. Baz is never still. Leaping, pirouetting, throwing the microphone stand around, and endangering anyone in the first row with decapitation, his energy is utterly infectious. The rest of the band each contribute a different dynamic. Guitarist Adam stepping in and out of the limelight with his Flying V, fellow axeman Stevie hair flying, bassist “Bowz” an immovable object in front of his bass amp, and drummer Alex sporting a constant grin.
“Pressure” is followed by “Banging in Your Stereo” which cleverly brings more fans onside as it features snippets of “I Fought The Law” and “Surrender” (I would love to hear more of this as a cover as it is superb). “Ratio” and “Glorious” before the tribute of “Back to the Stack” and the grin-inducing sight of the four mobile members of the band synchronising to the beat and the audience pretty much being irresistibly drawn into doing the same. Wagons make a habit of gaining fans as a support act on big tours and this will no doubt add to their legion of admirers (but don’t expect that bloke from Iron Maiden to come out and sign your Wagons T-shirt afterward as one disappointed punter found out!).
I last caught The Darkness at Steelhouse when they were a relatively late substitute headliner and whilst they entertained, the “snap” that I have experienced with them before was somehow missing. Tonight, in front of their own fans, mid-way through a tour and well-practiced, it was very much the band I have come to expect.
With a simple stage set of surrounding white lights, the focus was on the music rather than the theatre and had the effect of reminding you just how good the band is musically and just how heavy some of the material can be. Set opener “Welcome Tae Glasgow” is exactly that with “One Way Ticket” and “Growing on Me” keeping up the pace and energy. From a black silk trouser suit, Justin Hawkins is quickly stripped to the waist and by the time the band reaches “Black Shuck”, he has changed into a pink leotard. Sartorially, bassist Frankie Poullain is as cool as an ice cube and the visual trade-off between him and Hawkins is always a visual treat. “Friday Night” gets the support of a choir of Welsh voices that seems to take Hawkins by surprise as he stands back and lets the moment happen. “Japanese Prisoner of Love” features a massive riff and some tasty twin guitar work between the Hawkins’ – Justin and brother Dan Hawkins.
“Get your Hands” ignites what has been brewing throughout the set. Getting the crowd involved in a three-way sing-off that resulted in the “quiet” section on the right launching stage divers forward to prove their commitment and getting a recount from Hawkins (who then responded with foot claps whilst doing a handstand on the drum riser). “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” continued the chaos with pretty much every human being in the venue bouncing along (including the bar staff) and the band left the stage to massive cheers and applause from a now steaming and shattered crowd. There followed singing, chants, clapping, stamping but still no encore.
Slight concern. We had all thought it a pretty special evening but maybe compared to the others it had been a disappointment and the band had given up. Nope! A large inflatable Christmas tree appeared, poured beer over itself then sat behind the drums. The rest of the band followed and the place erupted. Hawkins as the campest Santa ever. Frankie with fake boobs and lord alone knows what else. A red lobster playing sleigh bells. A Santa on an inflatable reindeer. The coolest Christmas jumper ever. If I ever do acid it will be less random and less hallucinogenic than the party that followed with “Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)”. For the first time, the dreaded virus was forgotten. Possibly a Saturday night in Cardiff. Possibly the announcement of a new variant leading to uncertainty as to whether we lose our gigs again and a determination to just have fun and f*** it. Speaking to seasoned gig-goers we were unanimous, tonight was the night music came home, and it simply rocked!
Review and pics – Rob Wilkins
All remaining live dates for 2021 can be found on the official The Darkness website, here.