Photo credit: Roger Sargent
The Libertines faced a number of obstacles before they even set foot on stage at Irving Plaza. For one, they were touring without singer/guitarist/co-songwriter/co-founder Pete Doherty, who was removed from the band earlier in the summer due to alleged drug problems. Maybe I’m a purist/idealist, but I don’t like the idea that a band can just replace a member, continue on, and pretend that nothing has changed (the Replacements come to mind first here, but there are countless others). I smell the stench of opportunism overwhelming the scent of authenticity, and I see the band turning into a traveling jukebox; adequately playing the hits night after night for the dollars and the kids without any hint of the chemistry that inspired the music in the first place.
For another, the show was at Irving Plaza, quite possibly one of the worst venues in New York. The sterile, cavernous feel of the place has managed to suck the life and energy out of nearly every performance I’ve seen there. And then, Blackout 2003 hit. As if custom-designed to suck the momentum out of the Libertines’ faintly existent U.S. career trajectory, the loss of power meant the band had to reschedule its show for the following week, almost certainly throwing a monkey-wrench into the social calendars of all the fans who had bought tickets for the original date.
The floor was about half-full when the Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” came on the PA and the Libertines took the stage. Probably most of the fans that had tickets for the original date couldn’t change their plans to see the rescheduled show, or didn’t care enough to change their plans. Irving Plaza was horrid as usual, the sound was poor, and the bouncers were acting especially thug-like that night. And, as I suspected, there was a creepy air of ruthless efficiency in the band’s performance. The rough, spiky edges of the record were smoothed out in favor of a more streamlined, MTV2 type of sound, and singer/guitarist Carl Barat mechanically stumbled around stage with replacement guitarist Anthony Rossomando just like he probably did with his old chap Pete back in the day when they called themselves the New Jam and they were playing some stinking basement in Camden Town or Hogwarts or wherever. Rossomando was cute—he looked like Drew Barrymore’s boyfriend, he enthusiastically wagged his head to whatever song Barat told him to play, and he and Carl both smoked cigarettes and stuck them in the headstocks of their guitars, just like the Clash used to do, I’m sure. At one point in the set, as if on cue, Barat removed his shirt. It wasn’t torn off, there weren’t screams from the crowd for him to take it off, he simply took it off—as if this was a Libertines live tradition to be honored at every gig (every single live photo I’ve seen of the band has Barat and Doherty with their shirts off). The portentousness and unintentional hilarity of the scene was almost too much to bear.
So how did I come to enjoy myself so much? Part of it had to do with the crowd, which burst into delirious enthusiasm with nearly every song. Fat men danced, skinny boys played air guitar, and practically everyone in the front half of the floor was feverishly bouncing around to the Libertines’ sly update of the JamClashCocks. It’s rare to see people having fun with such abandon at a rock show, and it must have rubbed off a bit on me. But most of it had to do with the music, which despite its inane, utterly derivative nature, is virtually impossible to dislike. The Libertines’ newfound professionalism accentuated this point. They built tension and climaxes out of the inherent stops, starts, and changes in the songs, which merely served to underline how cleverly they were written in the first place. Highlights: pretty much the whole set, although “Death on the Stairs” and “Time for Heroes” merit special recognition, if not for the sole fact that its guitars remind me so much of that riffy pub-rock guitar sound on My Aim is True that I’m starting to think that the Libertines are less like the Strokes and more like Dire Straits, which makes me see them in a wholly different light. Now if only Barat would put his shirt back on.