Some bands seem to follow you around in life, and for me, one of those is The Darkness. Their debut album ‘Permission To Land’ was a staple of every festival and every night out in my late teenage years. In my early 20s, while backpacking in Thailand, I distinctly remember a drunken, messy journey in the back of a pick-up explaining to a group whose first language is not English that ‘Growing On Me’ is about STDs. In Dublin, their Christmas show has become a staple, almost ushering in the season.
20 years after that infectious debut, it’s fair to say that Justin Hawkins and co have never reached quite those heights again (though we must nod here to the excellent ‘One Way Ticket To Hell (And Back)’), but their strength as a band is that they have absolutely no difficulty acknowledging that. While this particular tour is specifically a celebration of ‘Permission To Land’, there’s scarcely been a show since those early days that wasn’t dominated by its finest tracks.
Tonight, after opening with a nod to Norfolk mythology in ‘Black Shuck’, a euphorically squeaky ‘Get Your Hands Of My Woman’, and the aforementioned ‘Growing On Me’, Hawkins (crazy frontman brother Justin, as opposed to mellower axe-yielding brother Dan) is in his usual manic form, and tells the audience he’s going to play “every single last fucking second” off ‘Permission To Land’, to what sounds like universal acclaim.
Hawkins is the soul of this band, and he has several key strengths as a frontman. Firstly, he’s actually able to reproduce what is a frankly insane vocal in a live setting, and he does so almost effortlessly. Secondly, he’s an absolute bundle of energy. Stage tricks this evening include taking a tour of the ground floor of the venue on a security guard’s shoulders, doing a headstand and clapping using his legs, temporarily kidnapping the phone of a lad in the front row who seems to be set on filming the whole concert, and holding up a pint of what he later declares to be a Guinness zero (Hawkins has been sober for well over a decade) and declaring he’s “back on the drink”, to huge cheers. Finally, he quite obviously loves every second of what he does.
Music wise, this absolutely thunders along, and the only real complaint that could be directed at the set is that if you wrote out what you expected, you probably wouldn’t miss it by too much. It’s predictable, but effortlessly charming, and Hawkins even refers to one of his newer efforts, ‘How Dare You Call This Love?’ as self-indulgent (it is, predictably, a weaker moment of the set).
The bigger picture, though, is that it feels like you’d have to be trying quite hard not to enjoy this. The pitchy, rocky rendition of Radiohead’s ‘Street Spirit’ always has been and always will be a hilariously inventive cover. ‘Love Is Only Feeling’ is the perfect foil to the band’s otherwise often loved up lyrics. ‘Friday Night’ is the most effortlessly nostalgic moment, not so much because it’s 20 years old now, but because it’s such a sentimental nod to late teenage romance, the school yard chase, and the way those early experiences all feel, from “hey you, do you remember me, I used to set next to you at school,” all the way to “hey you, could you ever fall for me, oh the way I fell for you”.
Naturally, as has become tradition, Hawkins quickly has the spandex around his waist, and late in the main set dons a Lidl Christmas hat and sings the opening couple of lines of The Pogues’ ‘Fairytale of New York’, knowing full well the Olympia crowd will immediately belt it back to him in full voice.
The Darkness’ own Christmas effort, the frankly ridiculous ‘Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End)’ gets a quick airing before the main set is closed down with a soaring ‘I Believe In a Thing Called Love’.
When the band re-emerge, after a fairly notable break, they’re dressed in silk dressing gowns and deliver a gloriously camp rendition of their slow number ‘I Love You Five Times’, each behind the wrong instrument, before the run through of ‘Permission To Land’ is completed with ‘Love On The Rocks With No Ice’.
There’s a formula here: high pitched choruses, confetti, sparks, overblown peaks and effortless wit, and a little jump delivered with the chord at the end of every track. It works. The Darkness are daft, off-the-wall and unforgettable, and a trick that’s two decades in shows absolutely no signs of growing old, at least for those still turning out year after year. At this stage, it feels unlikely that they’re set to add to their core cannon in any major way, but as far as the nostalgia goes, it’s hard to think of a band that still feel like they’re performing quite this close to their peak so many years later.