City: New York Venue: Bowery Ballroom Date: 2003-09-18
Photo credit: Patrick Ford
While most New Yorkers were bracing themselves for hurricane Isabel making landfall, 600 or so very curious and fortunate souls packed into the Bowery Ballroom on Manhattan's Lower East Side, looking to perhaps be blown away by Isabel's musical equivalent: the Darkness.
Normally, most of the attendees to such an exclusive, music industry-dominated event would have been highly skeptical about was likely to be yet another over-hyped, flavor-of-the-month act brought to us by those kind, sycophantic folks of the UK press. But with news of their debut album Permission to Land's three-week UK chart-topping streak preceding the band's arrival, the Darkness' well-guarded secret of an American debut performance exploded into veritable hysteria, sending industry types crawling all over each other for a firsthand glimpse at this mysterious phenomenon.
Simply put, as improbable a rock and roll success story as embodied by the Darkness only comes around every decade or so. Initially reviled and ridiculed by just about every British music critic and other so-called expert because of their brazen adoration of everything Spinal Tap, this English quartet stubbornly stuck to their guns and wisely concentrated on the only people whose opinions truly matter: the record-buying public. Anyone would tell you it's not supposed to work out that way, but amazingly, the Darkness were eventually vindicated in spades, when the aforementioned Permission to Land went to number one shortly after release. What's the band's secret? Essentially, they've figured out a way to endlessly recycle the classic rock formulas of old with humor, panache and utmost conviction -- or so we had heard, since precious few songs had actually made the rounds in these parts. Heavy Metal? Classic rock? Were these guys for real?
All these lingering questions would finally be answered as the Darkness hit the stage around 10:15 . . . or most of them anyway. Is that singer related to Peter Frampton or something? What's with the unitard? Is that the bassist from Saxon over there? What AC/DC riff is that based on? As the music played on, a few things were quickly revealed. First, cocksure hard rock nuggets like "Black Shuck" and "Givin' Up" are simultaneously informed by the economy of AC/DC, the pure power pop instincts of Cheap Trick and the over-the-top theatrics of Queen -- not to mention pyrotechnic guitar solos, and plenty of them. Second, as retro acts go, the Darkness are more accomplished and versatile songwriters than most pundits would care to admit, as irresistible singles "Get Your Hands Off My Woman" and "Growing on Me" readily attest. And third, here is a band that exists purely to entertain and put smiles on people's faces -- what a concept!
And that's pretty much what the Darkness did over the span of about an hour, as they treated the capacity crowd to virtually every track from Permission to Land. Not even the jolting falsetto regularly employed by the band's undisputed star and glamorous frontman Justin Hawkins (certainly a love/hate proposition) could take the focus away from the music for long. Unquestionably the most important ingredient in the band's successful recipe, his over-the-top outfits and Freddie Mercury-approved theatrics were easily offset by his self-effacing sense of humor. Culminating in an Angus Young-like trip through the crowd atop a roadie's shoulders, Hawkins' utter belief in his stage persona allows the Darkness to get away with even the most dreaded of classic rock devices: the power ballad ("Love is Only a Feeling") and the big, dumb, fist-pumping metal anthem ("Love on the Rocks with No Ice") -- no mean feat.
Simply put, in an era where all rock and roll bands are inherently contrived on some level, the Darkness flips the tables on the overly self-scrutinizing music establishment by just believing in who they are -- no matter anyone might think. That attitude alone may ultimately validate their cause since, whether they fail or succeed, chances are they will do it on their own terms. It certainly seemed to work on this occasion for, even with anticipation running so frightfully high, the looks of amazed, giddy disbelief plastered on most faces suggested that they'd just been treated to possibly the tiniest, most concentrated arena rock show of their lives.
And as the crowd spilled out onto the Bowery's dirty streets, Isabel announced its delayed -- and now mostly forgotten -- arrival at last, drenching one and all in a baptismal of wind and rain. Sounds like the makings of a new the Darkness song, actually.
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