The Libertines

Alexandra Palace, London,

28th September 2014

After the craziness of The Libertines official reunion show at Hyde Park back in July (our review) the band returned to the capital city once more last weekend, but this time to the more genteel environs of  “Ally Pally”. Fergal Kinney reports back from the show, with photos by Simon Sarin.

The place of North London’s Alexandra Palace in pop history, should there be any doubt, will always be assured by the 1967 ’14 Hour Technicolor Dream’, the high water mark of the mid-60s underground bubbling overground, attended by both John and Yoko before they were John and Yoko. Had anyone tonight expected mind-expansion and high concept on the menu, an onstage mention of Bruce Forsyth would have swiftly put those concerns to bed.

North London’s the Libertines have a place in pop history much more contestable than tonight’s venue – a band that burnt incredibly brightly, imploded devastatingly quickly and left a total dominance of influence over British guitar music for years that now, with that influence only freshly subsided, leaves this seminal band looking less relevant than at any time since their emergence. The Libertines’ shtick was always steeped in romantic nostalgia, yet it’s curious that tonight – the third date on their reunion tour – has nothing to do with nostalgia for this audience, much of whom were certainly not old enough to have caught the band first time around.

The band -some members more than others- look much older, but the age of the audience is much the same as it was a decade ago. If this isn’t testament enough to the enduring appeal of this band, that tonight can open with an early b-side that is received like a greatest hit, surely speaks for something. Having taken to the stage amidst cup final cheers, silenced only by a notably healthy looking Pete Doherty having announced something vague about ‘fish and chips’, the band tear into ‘the Delaney Boys’, and suddenly this band feel very different from the scores of imitations that followed their split.

A thundering, climaxing ‘Campaign of Hate’ is next, and whilst the second Libertines album is rightly criticised in comparison to its predecessor, it’s this album that shines brightest in the set tonight. The uneasy malevolence of tracks like ‘the Ha Ha Wall’ and ‘the Saga’ make more sense with the passage of time than the knees-up bluster of ‘the Boy Looked at Johnny’. Doherty’s guitar style – best described as Johnny Marr wearing an oven glove – still adds a thrilling Velvet Underground prickliness to what is an otherwise highly polished outfit, and there are frequent glimpses of just why the Libertines mattered so much.

Doherty himself is clearly energised by this reunion; having seen him in various incarnations over recent years, tonight he is at his most focused and lucid, engaging with drummer Gary Powell and the wonderfully stoic John Hassall much more than Carl Barat. Barat has every reason to appear a little cautious through much of the concert, and though this is not even the first time the band have reformed there’s still something of a tension between the Libertines’ two frontmen. When Doherty begins chanting to the tune of ‘My Old Man Said (Follow the Van)’, Barat wavers on the periphery, and when invited to join an accapella shout-through of second album track ‘Don’t Be Try’ he eventually accepts before forgetting the words. The obligatory union of the microphone kiss comes early in the set, to significant applause, but now, two men in their thirties with much past behind them, gone is the boyish innocence and bravado of ten years ago. That both are still dressed in their consecutive traditional attire of Doherty’s suit and trilby and Barat’s red military tunic serves only to underline the gulf between their split and now.

Whilst the band tonight are impressively tight and coherent, the cavernous Alexandra Palace, however, is unforgiving. The sound from the stage sloshes around the room and strains the band’s wonky exuberance from really taking flight; every bum note resonates a little too audibly whilst the incontestable power of the rhythm section resonates somewhat flat. Only the gin-sodden singalong of ‘Music When the Lights Go Out’ manages to carry the whole room with it, and is one of tonight’s real highlights, confessional in subject matter and compulsive in its performance. Likewise ‘Tell the King’ is a salient reminder of quite how accomplished songwriting partners Doherty and Barat were, the roughness around their edges all too often mistaken for a lack of seriousness about their craft. The hits are henceforth delivered and come thick and fast – ‘Don’t Look Back Into the Sun’, ‘Up the Bracket’ and the still poignant ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ – reminding you exactly why every Camden chancer lusting for a record label donned a straw hat and did their best impression. These same chancers are now all shoegaze guitars and ‘Neu!’ drums ripping off the Horrors.

The band are on the eve of embarking on a European tour, and this will be the real test of how long this reunited Libertines can endure. At the end of the set – speaking from underneath a jacket on his head – Doherty announces that the next time the band play London (so there will be a next time) it will be armed with new material from a third album. How wise is this? Well, whilst Carl Barat has found difficulty sustaining a career outside the Libertines, Doherty’s most recent album with Babyshambles earned deservedly some of the best reviews of his career, and still has much to say as a songwriter and it would be a shame to see his thirties wasted on blasting out the hits of his twenties.

Tonight is an impressive display of a band learning again how to be their best, and though hampered by a largely unsuitable venue there is a clear endeavour, not least from Pete Doherty, to provide something that steps up to the mark. Though the future looks more certain for Doherty and Barat by the end of this set than at any point in the last decade, whether or not a new album does come into fruition the Libertines have proved against the odds quite why they were so important in the first place.

All words by Fergal Kinney and all photos © Simon Sarin. More writing by Fergal on Louder Than War can be found at his author’s archive.

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