The Darkness / Million Dollar Reload at The Ulster Hall
Experiencing something of a rebirth five years after frontman Justin Hawkins jumped ship for some much-needed rehabilitation, The Darkness return to Belfast tonight a band riding the wave of new-found success and a more laudable reputation than ever before. Sure, they’ve encountered their fair share of derision and mockery in their time, but there’s a vague sense that, this time, they mean business. However, the question remains: is there any truth to this and – more importantly - is it finally time to cut them a bit of slack?
If there was ever a band suited to getting tonight’s demographic ready and raring to go, Million Dollar Reload would be it. In a set taking in Phil Conalane’s razorblade, brilliantly Bon Scottesque vocals and guitarists BAM and Andy Mac’s jawdropping guitar work throughout, anthems including ‘Tattoos and Dirty Girls’ and ‘Livin’ In The City’ go down a storm, while new material including ‘I Am The Rapture’ and ‘Bullets In The Sky’ prove to be watertight, balls-to-the-wall fist-punchers that should see the Northern Irish five-piece well and truly arrive. A truly barnstorming performance in all and, if consensus is anything to go by, Million Dollar Reload are not only the finest rock n’ roll band on this island, they’re currently right up there with the best of their kind anywhere in the world.
With the Ulster Hall bunged and expectation rife in the air, Justin Hawkins and the rest of The Darkness triumphantly emerge to ABBA overture, ‘Arrival’ (what else?) before kicking straight into the AC/DCesque ‘Black Shuck’. Commanding in ways only he can – in a tartan suit and There Will Be Blood beard - Hawkins’ well-rehearsed Freddy Mercurisms and Kate Bushesque falsetto ensure this opener makes for a statement of intent, wonderfully sustained on the oddly nostalgic ‘Growing On Me’, b-side ‘The Best Of Me’ (essentially Queen’s ‘Tie Your Mother Down’ covered by Thin Lizzy circa Jailbreak) and octave-defying vocal acrobatics on ‘One Way Ticket To Hell And Back’. Only a few songs down and you already get the impression The Darkness are on the top of their game.
With Hawkins’ upbeat announcement that it’s their last show of the year — “Let’s make it a good one” — a celebratory, unmistakably pre-Christmas atmosphere takes hold during the impossibly catchy ‘Get Your Hands Off Of My Woman’ and the frontman’s lone acoustic rendition of the strangely poignant ‘Holding My Own’. Whilst the band re-emerge and thoroughly command on ‘Love Is Only A Feeling, it’s riotous singalong ‘Dancing On A Friday Night’ that instils the party atmosphere yet further, with tonight’s crowd more than happily lapping up Hawkins’ handstands, over the top guitar solos and countless other charismatic manoeuvres.
In the end, a ridiculously over-the-top (but, somehow, totally convincing) cover of Radiohead’s ‘Street Spirit’, Hawkins’ mid-gig decision to don the classic pink leotard of yore and the almost inevitable airing of ‘Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End)’, The Darkness give two fingers to “convention” and all the kneejerk disparagement that continues to taint their many talents. Like them or not, tonight you can’t possibly deny the guts and songwriting prowess of new track, the downright riff-fuelled ‘Cannonball’, Hawkins’ brilliantly wry venturing throughout the crowd mid guitar-solo and a kick-ass, not-so tongue-in-cheek rendition of – yes - ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’. Sure, they’re still clowns, but they’re clowns that completely and utterly rock.