Thursday, December 9

Ride the tiger - The Darkness @ The NEC
Ok, it's a fair cop. I went to see The Darkness on Tuesday and even of enjoyed it in a kind of ironic way. But what kind of tiger was Justin straddling? I just couldn't find the right breed....

The Darkness - Tuesday 7 December - Birmingham NEC
On their first arena tour, it’s clear that The Darkness have found their natural habitat. Costume changes, pyrotechnics, flames and Justin astride a life sized tiger above the audience. All in an evenings work for the spandex clad four-piece from Suffolk. But first...

‘Hello, we’re Ash from Northern Ireland’ proclaims frontman Tim Wheeler after the bands opening run through of ‘Girl From Mars’. The band proceed to deliver an efficient 40 minute mix of newer tracks and old classics, without ever really fully capturing the imagination of the crowd.

Wheeler, uncomfortably resembling Daniel Bedingfield with his new shaggy-haired unshaven look, is the ideal frontman. Guitarist Charlotte Hatherley is a picture of elegant cool and perfectly balances bassist Mark Hamilton’s awkward charm and drummer Rick McMurray’s studied intensity.

Tracks from their newest album ‘Meltdown’ are politely received by the audience, but it’s not until the final track ‘Burn Baby Burn’ that they really show their appreciation for what is after all, one of the best bands in the country.

The one surprise of the Ash set is their cover of ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ by Think Lizzy. The song, along with videos from the likes of The Cult, Van Halen and Aerosmith on the big screen perfectly sets the mood for the headline act.

Though they’ve only released one album The Darkness have a batch of new material and open with the abrasive blast of ‘Grief Hammer’. ‘Birmingham put your hands in the air immediately’ demands Justin Hawkins, before launching into ‘Giving Up’ and ‘Stuck in a Rut’, much to the delight of the crowd.

Although ostensibly a metal gig, there isn’t really a metal crowd in attendance. Families and well dressed couples dominate the audience, making the ageing rockers look decidedly out of place. The man sitting next to me is wearing a blazer and even has some theatre binoculars – not very rock ‘n’ roll.

Impressive stage show

The stage show is impressive, with flames, indoor fireworks and bangs galore, whilst the set is an even mix of new and old. Newer tracks like the promising ‘Dinner Lady Arms’ are followed by hits like the crowd pleasing ‘Growing On Me’. Hawkins plays the crowd like a true showman, ‘I thought this was meant to be the home of rock’ he mocks, as they fall a bit quiet in between songs.

As well as giving the crowd something to laugh about, The Darkness want to show off their excellent musicianship. The ryhthm section of drummer Ed Graham and bassist Frankie Poullain (looking even more like a 70’s tennis player than usual), are as tight as any around, and the guitar playing of the Hawkins brothers is at times blistering.

The sweeping, epic power ballad ‘Love Is Only A Feeling’ proves to be one of the highlights of the night. Then….disbelief as a keyboard is wheeled out.

The rules of rock

One of the unwritten rules of rock is that all songs involving keyboards almost without exception are bad, but then when have The Darkness ever bothered with convention?

‘Seemed Like A Good Idea’ marks a shift in direction for the band. Justin plays keyboard whilst his brother Dan accompanies him on an acoustic sounding guitar. It’s all very nice, but reminiscent of the ‘Lick My Love Pump’ scene in Spinal Tap – If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know what I mean.

Then things get even more surreal as Justin straps on one of the most reviled musical instruments in rock history – a key-tar! The offending song ‘English Country Garden’, is the most memorable of new tracks, but not necessarily for the right reasons!

Costume change

The set is finished with ‘Get Your Hands Off My Woman’, before the return for the inevitable encore and almost as inevitable costume change for Justin, into a silver, spangly catsuit.

The crowd are really into it now and an extended version of ‘I Believe In A Thing
Called Love’, leads on to the most rock ‘n’ roll moment of the night.

Justin disappears backstage for a moment, before slowly rising up to the roof on the back of a giant white tiger. He is then dangled over the crowd on the back of the tiger as he solos his way through ‘Love On The Rocks’, a truly memorable moment.

Finally, as it’s the festive season, The Darkness play their comedy Christmas track ‘Don’t Let The Bells End’, before leaving in a shower of confetti.

It’s a sure sign of a good gig, that almost every member of the audience leaves with a smile on their face. The Darkness are without exception, the most entertaining live band in Britain, but it remains to be seen whether their ‘difficult second album’ will prove as successful as their first. Whatever happens, let's just hope they don't lose their sense of camp irony in the process.