The Libertines, O2 Arena, London.
The word “great” is bestowed on a lot of bands these days, sometimes merited sometimes not. It’s certainly a word that’s been pushed in the direction of the The Libertines, although for me there’s sometimes been a sense of the emperor’s new clothes about them. Does the hype and legend that surrounds the band, and especially Pete and Carl’s tempestuous relationship transcend some of their musical shortcomings?
To add to the challenge, this is a re-scheduled gig after Pete failed to make it to the Electric Ballroom last Autumn following an anxiety attack. Moving from an all standing 1,100 capacity venue to the enormitude of the O2 (capacity 20,000) is a confident move.
But having had the pleasure to both photograph and watch tonight’s performance it definitely worked, and I’ve learnt that “great” doesn’t always come from the virtuosity of your musicianship. Sometimes it’s that ability to engage with your fans in a way that feels personal, even in a massive arena like the O2. All around me tonight there was evidence of that; even in the seated section, people were on their feet throughout, and I’ve seldom seen a standing area scrum that extended so far back. The adoration was palpable.
Unsurprisingly, a fair chunk of the evening is focused on their comeback album Anthems for Doomed Youth which has earnt them a bunch of new fans, and satisfied the old alike. The opener, Barbarians, typifies this, and sets the tone for the rest of the evening with its chorus of “All I want is to scream out loud, and have it up with a mental crowd”. This crowd now have permission to go mad, which, unsurprisingly, they do especially as on the follow up track The Delaney they’re treated to some classic Pete and Carl interplay on the mic, getting so close they’re almost giving mouth to mouth. And all this action reflected on a huge real time screen behind the band, complete with a scratched up film effect to add to the poignancy. Oh and did I mention the Refreshment Girls dressed in red tunics? A curious but welcome addition for the band as they come onstage every few songs.
Given the strength of the new album, a number of songs stood out, in particular the poignant You’re my Waterloo, which sees Carl at the piano for part of it before launching into the best guitar solo of the night, and the first single Gunga Din. On the album this is a quirky tune, but live it’s a real sing-along classic provoking a huge crowd surge on its opening chords.
It also marks the start of the second half of the set and a trip down memory lane for the hardcore, which given the arena is already at fever pitch, helps take things to 11. Tracks like Vertigo and Cant Stand Me Now which recounts the breakdown of Pete and Carl’s friendship sound as fresh as ever, although at some points the band seem less at ease playing these than the newer material. Carl in particular wandered around the stage like a slightly stressed animal, and the interplay didn’t seem to be quite so tight as earlier. However it didn’t affect the atmosphere until the closing track of the main set, and the downbeat The Good Old Days. This finished in a kind of strange hiatus and as the band left the stage, there’s a sort of disbelieving hush in the room almost as though we’d witnessed another breakup in front of their eyes.
However, normal service was resumed quickly as Pete returned, and admitted that they had to have a break as he needed a fag and didn’t want to incur a hefty fine! So starts the encore which ran us through more firm favorites’ including Music When the Lights Go Out and closing fittingly with Don’t Look Back in to the Sun. This is accompanied by a picture montage on the back screen of film and TV legends including Pete and Carl’s inspirations Sid James, Tony Hancock and Sid Vicious, and the aforementioned refreshment girls dancing round the band and eventually falling over in a heap on the stage.
So a fitting end to a boisterous and very very loud evening. And I’ve come to understand a bit more about what “great” means. In the same vein as the Pistols, The Libertines will never be the world’s greatest musicians. But they’ve written themselves into musical history because of their ability to grasp the more gritty parts of life and make them real for people. Great? Yes. Legendary? Almost certainly.
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The Libertines, O2 Arena, London 30th January 2016
Review by Andy Sampson