SIXTEENHUNDRED: The Darkness and Sweatheart make rock fun again

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First Posted: 5/28/2013

Justin Hawkins strutted downstage at Philadelphia’s historic Victorian Trocadero Theatre, hip cocked, and combed his wavy mane with the thin, busy fingers of a guitarist, asking the crowd if he should part his hair to the center or the side. Upstage of Hawkins sat stoic drummer Ed Graham, while Justin was flanked on either side by his guitarist brother, Dan, and bassist Frankie Poullain, both holding their Gibsons in a sturdy stance, poised for their cue.

Sweeping chestnut strands to the left of his face, Justin wondered aloud, “Do I look like a sex offender?” Centering his part, Hawkins then displayed his silhouette, demanding, “Do you think I should have my ears out?” He thrashed his hair back into place, “Or in?” A resounding “Out!” led Hawkins to tuck loose locks, musing, “Out of all my features, my ears are my second favorite.” While the audience was imagining his most favorite physical feature, the English singer asked, “Do I look like an elven person of yestertime?” But before the Philly crowd could consider what the hell “yestertime” meant, The Darkness had thundered into their next song.

The Darkness has been captivating crowds internationally since their founding in Lowestoft, England, in 2000. Their catchy metal riffs, superhuman stamina, and dazzling costumes contribute to the quartet’s theatrical stage presence, which, on May 21, began with the band walking on to a Darkness-specific introductory song under the green glow caught by the stage fog. The crowds’ hands were in the air to greet the quartet, who joined their own hands as if to bow, or perhaps to stand “under the banner of darkness,” combining their collective powers for an explosive evening.

Justin got the crowd clapping in time with “Every Inch of You,” from their latest album, “Hotcakes.” A few more songs from the 2012 LP made an appearance in the set, including the anthemic “Nothin’s Gonna Stop Us,” the charming “She’s Just a Girl, Eddie,” and an impressive, up-tempo metal rendition of “Street Spirit (Fade Out.)” The latter, a cover off Radiohead’s 1995 album “The Bends,” has circulated The Darkness’s set lists for years, finally landing a studio recording and a slot on their 2012 album.

“I mean, obviously, we love the song,” Poullain said of the Radiohead ballad. “It’s a nice idea, I think, y’know; take a song and put it in a different context. I think anything that makes you ask questions and divides opinions is a good thing.”

“Some people get precious about it,” he continued. “Basically, getting the song into a heavy metal style is a way of challenging that kind of snobbery, I suppose, in music.” Fans of the Darkness are familiar with their cover, which has been in circulation among their live setlists for years.

“The song in its original form is obviously very heartfelt, kind of baroque, kind of serious,” smiled Poullain, “so it’s nice to see how far you can push that.” The band finally gave their version of “Street Spirit” a proper recording as a track on “Hotcakes.”

In addition to their latest album, The Darkness played a string of titles off their debut album, “Permission to Land,” including a particularly high-pitched “Get Your Hands Off My Woman,” a fist-pounding “Black Shuck,” and their chart-dominating single “I Believe in a Thing Called Love.” Frankie took to the woodblock for their 2005 album’s title song, “One Way Ticket to Hell and Back.”

Hair flew, legs lunged, spandex stretched, and the crowd throbbed. It was an aerobic show, with each of the three guitarists bursting with a quick bit of choreography, including toe touches, aerial shredding, drum kit handstands, and professional-grade pose-offs. Justin’s ribs rose each time he leapt from his range into his impressively sustainable falsetto.

Justin led yet another call and response, then coyly asked, “Can you tell it’s the last show and we don’t want to go home?” Philadelphia didn’t want The Darkness to go home, either. The energy surged. As some dreamy feedback faded into the nostalgic “Friday Night,” Justin, still thrusting his pinstriped hips, led the crowd in an a capella chorus.

For the encore, Justin reentered in leather lederhosen and mumbled something about Tina Turner before announcing, “We’d like to sing a song with your local heroes, the Sweatheart band. C’mon, people of Sweatheart!” Scranton’s Brian Langan led the opening act onstage, followed by singer Rose Luardo, bassist Thom Lessner, drummer David Pap, and guest guitarist Pat Finnerty, also a Scranton native.

Hawkins took center stage: “Brian was actually named after Bryan Adams, appropriately.”

Langan strolled downstage to meet him, threading his mic through his hands. “True story. My dad said to me, ‘We gave you an ‘I’ because we don’t want it to be too much like Bryan Adams.” The bands then broke into Tina Turner/Bryan Adams duet “It’s Only Love.” Their performance simultaneously summoned the spirit of Queen, The Hives, and “This Is Spinal Tap.”

The hyper-informed, voyeuristic norms of modern technology encourage fans and critics to dissect and evaluate art down to the decimal. It’s too easy to cling to pretense, forgetting how to enjoy music. The spectacle, shrieks, and revelry of The Darkness are the bursts of oxygen that rock has been gasping toward. Turn it up, shake it off, breath deep, and try not to choke on all the glitter.