A crucial lesson for any singer-songwriter type is that a show is so much more than song following song. There needs to be uncertainty and an inability to predict the minutes ahead to sustain energy and anticipation. Any would-be artist wishing to walk the solo path out onto a stage could learn a lot watching former enfant terrible Peter Doherty, who, for an hour-and-a-half, roused an audience to the point I saw one woman cry with happiness. And he did it all with just his voice, a smile, and an acoustic guitar.
Doherty can still arouse disdain and dismissal from people who know little of him beyond his long spell in the British tabloids. Truthfully, a visit to his Battered Songbook Tour makes a strong case that Doherty belongs in the lineage of John Lennon, Ray Davies, Morrissey, and Noel Gallagher as one of the most talented songsmiths to emerge from the UK. On stage, he’s bashful, sweet, funny, and self-deprecating. It’s clear why he became a victim of Britain’s prurient and intrusive press. He gives the impression of having neither guile nor defense, of being totally exposed and completely open. This wide-eyed honesty and hopefulness are precisely why he arouses such continued loyalty.
As part of this tour, Doherty is giving practical form to his celebrations of the best instincts of England by giving stage time to a hand-picked cluster of unsigned locals. Today we get Gloucestershire’s Blossom Calderone, who has an impressive voice to back her story-telling lyrical style. This is followed by Newcastle’s Andrew Cushin, who asks if there are any Geordies in town who might understand his accent — why aye, man! But I moved down south so long ago; I don’t think I count anymore. He’s got a confidence and wit in the spotlight that I wish I had now, let alone at his young age. He has the songs and the lungs to back it up too.
Then, without ceremony, Doherty rambles out. He immediately starts apologizing that his throat is rough and says he will warm his vocal cords with a couple of leisurely numbers. No apology is due at all. This affable and humble opening sets the mood for the entire night. Songs don’t follow songs in a regimented column. Instead, there’s a whimsicalness like we’re listening in to the fluttering of pages in his titular songbook. If you enjoy nature grown wild more than the rigidity of suburban lawns and show gardens, then you’ll be impressed with the organic way in which Doherty strolls through his songs, pausing to savor his surprise discoveries rather than hammering anyone over the head with his apparent mastery of stage, crowd, and music.
It’s a constant stream of fascinating moments. One minute he’s fingering a new gypsy jazz intro that Django Reinhardt would admire; the next, he’s spliced the best of one song into the best of another to give everyone the pleasure of both without any of the slack. Here he’s adding a repeated verse or chorus based on the crowd’s delight, then crafting instrumental departures that expand on or connect one tune to the next. Songs grow lyrics; they might develop a new verse entirely — nothing is static, and nothing is sacred. Mid-song, Doherty might break off to sip a drink while the audience repeats a line so that even glitches feel like another part of the enjoyable spectacle. At one point, he murmurs, “tailed off in the middle and trailed off right at the end”, and I can’t tell if it was a new lyric or a surprisingly detailed craftsman tallying his efforts. Either way, it was unnecessarily harsh — everything here was right where it belonged in the moment.
We live in an era where performers are often seen as mere economic song-dispensing units, a junk food diet for paying customers who do not want an ounce of the genuinely unexpected. Similarly, industry machinations have reduced some performers’ respect for audiences to the point they even script their stage banter, cranking out the same songs night after night, adopting the path of least resistance to get paid.
Doherty might come across as casual, but it takes skill to weave what feels like a continuous hour-and-a-half medley where he can be gulping down a drink with one hand while teasing the audience with an earworm rhythm with the other. It’s easy to forget that Doherty truly knows his instruments, both his voice and guitar and that he’s unpredictable because he genuinely cares about the excitement it can create for those watching. Alone and exposed on stage, he rises to the occasion, risking falling flat on his face if it means he can gift the crowd something that might feel like a touch of magic or that guarantees they’ll walk away with something they wouldn’t get on any other night.
It’s all a genuine hoot. Doherty’s two dogs, Zeus and Gladys, ramble about stretching their legs on stage and playing fight with each other through one song. There’s a chant of “Dog! Dog! Dog!” until Doherty formally introduces the pair to the audience. Just to my left, one of Doherty’s two dogs — Zeus and Gladys — sits on stage and gives an affectionate lick to a calmly accepting security guard. Doherty leans into the moment by singing an old Babyshambles’ number, “French Dog Blues”, and pauses later in the set to pet Gladys — because why not? The sense that Doherty on stage is the same as Doherty at home is part of why a pretty packed venue feels so intimate.
Then the songs, so many! Halfway through the show, a lightbulb in the mind pings on, illuminating that, across his sometimes stumbling path through music, Doherty has penned gorgeous melodies. These are words worth belting out at the top of the lungs and moments of poetry wrung from long, hard work. Others are dashed off with insouciant aplomb because, on a good day, he can breathe out beauty from mind to mic. He’s not played the same setlist twice on any night of this tour because it turns out he can hit you with “Albion”, “Arcady”, “Can’t Stand Me Now”, “Don’t Look Back Into the Sun”, “Killamangiro”, “Sheepskin Tearaway”, “The Last of the English Roses”, “The Man Who Would Be King”, a dozen more.
Doherty still has a dozen songs in the back pocket that everyone in the crowd would have been thrilled to hear. A pleasant surprise is a new song, “Merrie Olde England”, bidding welcome to a world of people from Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine and hopeful of a time when a currently quite grim nation is ruled by its better angels.
The line between audience and artist feels wafer-thin in a way I haven’t felt outside of tiny sub-culture gigs where half the people in the room genuinely were one another’s friends. The audience speaks, and Doherty answers like it’s the most natural thing in the world. He’s up and down the front of the stage, offering smiles, nods, and a thousand other acknowledgments. This isn’t some grizzled hack pausing for audience interaction time: he gives every impression it’s his raison d’etre to give each fan one of those seemingly tiny moments that will mean the world to them. One minute someone is yelling something about ‘the 126’ — presumably the bus route in London — and he sounds delighted to be reminded of it; the next, he’s fumbling someone’s mobile while apologizing that he’s not sure he got them a selfie; when the audience’s singing reaches a lusty peak, he lets them lead, altering the song to match them and harmonizing with them rather than demanding they bow to him.
In one telling exchange, someone shouts out a deep cut that Doherty only half recalls (“Merry Go Round”), but he tries it anyway. He fluffs a change; he tries again; he jokes, “You coming any other nights of the tour? I’ll have it by then!” He launches into another song, but then, part way through, Doherty takes another run at the rarity, then returns when he can’t quite get that crucial change. He gets to the end of the song, then jokingly asks the audience if anyone has an app that could help him figure it out, then he tries again, and finally — to his and everyone else’s delight — he cracks it and treats us all to a full run-through. This is a guy who didn’t mind failing on stage, didn’t mind the frustration or embarrassment or hard work, so long as he showed that one person he was trying for them, that making them smile meant something.
If you’ve already made your mind up on Doherty and skipped a chance to see him solo, you’ll miss a night that might change it. If you’re open to being convinced, give it a shot, and you’ll see a master at work. More than half the audience was well under 30, and it’s clear why they’ve connected to him only long after the Libertines’ original crash and burn. As the high of one song falls away, a cluster within the crowd calls out to him: “Take a bow!” The cry is taken up by many more, so he sets his guitar to one side before sweeping his hat toward the floor in a complete bow as the audience chant turns to “Pete! Pete! Pete! Pete!” He deserves it.
This was a triumphant night from a performer many expect, and some want, to fall on his arse. One man shouted, “My wife loves you, Pete!” to be answered by other girls in the crowd, saying they do too. Truth be told, hand on heart, by the end of the night, so did I. Pete Doherty proved why he’s worthy of respect, why so many root for him, and why he deserves the love.