The Darkness, The Wildhearts at Clutch Cargo’s
Pontiac, Michigan, March 28, 2004
Customs frowned upon the fiberglass UFO, and the towering hydraulic phalluses had to be tucked away in a south London storeroom. Domestic tour support didn’t cover the laserbeam generator, nor did it allow for the hovering obelisk, and officials understandably balked at plans for flash pots and flaming tongues. No, The Darkness gig at Pontiac’s Clutch Cargo’s wasn’t couched in the cavernous ridiculosity of, say, their recent BRIT awards appearance. But the opening act’s drummer did take his shirt off, and the Marshalls and Mesa Boogies were big and square and turned up really loud, and at least one Les Paul was adorned with the Union Jack. In other words, it was a fun, high voltage rock show with more power chords than pomp and less hype than Steven Seagal’s comeback campaign. Oh, and catsuits. Customs allowed the catsuits.
The epicenter of and brains behind Darkness opener, The Wildhearts, is a gentleman named Ginger. He looks like what would happen if Adrien Brody swallowed Lemmy and grew in dreads; he’s the picture of rock and roll decadence. Which is fitting, as The Wildhearts’ music is a hardliner speedball of Motörhead and melody, happily mixing hard rock with three part harmony. Les Paul slung low and flanked by tattooed badasses, Ginger worked the sellout crowd into a lather within first few minutes of the Wildhearts’ set. The drummer knew it was on – his shirt disappeared in the crash of an extra large ride cymbal. More energizing even than the Wildhearts’ level-burying music was their joy at playing it. After slogging around their native UK for ten-plus years, they finally have solid US distribution (through Gearhead, for Riff After Riff) and their first real opportunity to rock American rooms. The startlingly polite Ginger threw out compliments to Detroit’s musical legacy and saluted profusely in between trading weedly weedly solos with his swarthy bandmate. His scallywag gallantry was tremendously endearing, his heavy music a right proper beginning to an evening of unabashed rock swagger and old-fashioned showmanship.
While the Wildhearts’ furious set certainly held the crowd’s attention, it was difficult not to notice the shroud looming at their backs. Pointed and swooped like a half-collapsed circus tent, it was definitely covering up some sort of Darkness craziness. Ginger and the Wildhearts vacated the stage in a flurry of fabulous stage moves ganked from Townshend, Axl, Rotten, and Richards, but as an army of roadies swarmed toward the shroud, a pristine white curtain dropped from the ceiling, obscuring the preparation on stage. It didn’t stop the speculation, first concerning the bizarre peach fuzz growing on the lip of Guy Wearing Tonight’s Tour Shirt standing nearby, but second about the Darkness stage setup. “Maybe they’ll have a catwalk,” remarked my pal Klein, eying up a full-figured waitress and sipping a whiskey. “I picture one of those spinning drum kits, a la Tommy Lee,” remarked another pal. Tonight’s Tour Shirt was not consulted. What would it be? What’s he building in there?
When permission to land was given and the crowd thoroughly amped by a fife and bagpipe vamp, a beam illuminated on the curtain a shadow of enormous proportion. But the percussion came in, the figure struck a power chord, and the curtain dropped to reveal…four British guys of decidedly normal height. Where was the 90-foot wicker man, the miniature Stonehenge ringed by dwarven jesters? Shit, where the birthing cocoons? The shroud had disappeared to reveal a muscular backline of heads and amps, as well as a drum kit defined not by its preposterous amount of cymbals or a goofy gong, but deep toms and a howitzer of a kick drum. Hardworking, not self-indulgent. Guitarist Dan Hawkins wore a Thin Lizzy shirt, to mention just one of the late ’70s groups The Darkness’ ballsy rhythm section references; for his part, frontman Justin Hawkins showed off the first catsuit of the evening. Launching into “Black Shuck,” Hawkins’ outrageous flutter of a voice elicited plenty of laughter. But it wasn’t spiteful, or hooting at spectacle like dense Americans tend to do. It was an involuntary reaction of tingling happiness, like the first time you heard Ronnie James Dio and “Rainbow in the Dark.” Rock symbols were thrown into the air, “Black Shuck!” was shouted back to the band, Hawkins did his Jagger preen, and the bassist’s headband was cool.
The Darnkess has no use for continuity. Hawkins chatted sociably with the audience between each song, or would spend a few minutes just cranking out crackling non sequitur riffs on one of his numerous Les Pauls. These funny little moments helped root out the thorny clusters of hype that seemingly have to qualify any conversation about the band. “We’re JUST a band,” they seemed to be saying, “here to have fun and rock.” It brought to mind the English tradition of blue collar pub rock, especially since live, it’s the influence of AC/DC that becomes most apparent in The Darkness’ sound. “Givin’ Up,” “Get Your Hands off My Woman,” and an absolutely explosive “Love on the Rocks With No Ice” all strutted with a satisfying crunch, while “Love Is Only a Feeling” was a tear-welling masterwork of arena rock balladry. At its blue-lit and lighter-flicked end, nothing would have been better than a throaty cover of the Head East classic “Since You’ve Been Gone,” but a revved up rendition of “Growing on Me” stood in quite nicely.
By this point, Hawkins’ catsuit costume changes had progressed from leather-in-all-the-wrong-places and through sequins-and-lion’s-mane, ultimately settling on a pink and white candystripe number that accentuated his scrawniness. He showed it off, too. In another classic move, the hit “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” was reserved until set’s close. Hawkins disappeared again for its instrumental overture, only to emerge in the center of the club, soloing wildly from the shoulders of roadies. Circling his way back to the stage, Hawkins led the club in the inevitable hand claps in the air breakdown before ending the night with what seemed like its hundredth Big Finish drum fill. Naturally, it was just as satisfying as the first.
The Darkness, bitch. Let’s believe in a thing called rock.
Be sure to check out Glorious Noise’s preview of the Darkness album, Permission to Land from back in October: Crotch Rock It.