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Two great bands with great songs, having a great time – a win win combination

London: Wembley Arena – 4 February 2023

Danko Jones promised us that, being the last night of the tour, he was gonna blow out his voice, and despite only having about half an hour, he and his band did their best to tear the stage up with a straightforward set of Hard Rock. It’s a Saturday night, so opener ‘Saturday’ and ‘I Gotta Rock’ hit just the right note. For me, however, things really got going with catchy ‘I’m In A Band’, accessible enough for anyone on the planet. No one can fault the band’s enthusiasm, as we are told they love London, they love Wembley and they love Black Stone Cherry and The Darkness, successfully getting over that there’s absolutely nowhere else to be right here, right now.

Aware that they are being followed by two great acts, they didn’t want to let the side down. There’s plenty of big guitar, like proper old school Metal, and Danko took the time to credit Deirdre Cartwright (who is, apparently, in the audience and formerly of Girlschool) with tutorials that taught him how to play power chords. Bassist JC didn’t fail to put the boat out with animated stage moves and a driving bass line. Declaring that London had restored their faith in Rock ‘n’ Roll, they played out with ‘My Little Rock ‘n’ Roll’.

Fountains of falling sparklers were the striking backdrop to The Darkness’ first track ‘Growing On Me’. They have reams of accessible, well-known records, and made the most of their best known songs in a largely greatest hits set performed with panache and aplomb. Despite his recent broken ribs, Justin was bouncing around and split-kick jumping from the drum riser from the off, encouraging the crowd with big arms-length clapping straight away. Camping it up with two-scissor-fingers-across-the-eyes, sixties style, dancing with hip wiggles, bending over and kneeling on the floor, he fixated on his microphone in a very Freddie Mercury pose for big screaming vocals for ‘Black Shuck’.

I was slightly surprised and delighted as a photographer when, suddenly, Justin stripped off his t-shirt early in proceedings for ‘Motorheart’ from their latest album. With huge bursts of flame from the floor to the rafters, suddenly the reason became clear with an extravagant display of pyrotechnic grandeur. Justin came to the front of the stage for extended guitar solos, including his slide guitar skills acquired in the Pandemic. As the photographers left he shouted “just have to say goodbye to our esteemed photography department – don’t forget to draw six packs on all of us which is what photoshop was made for”. (But, he does have a six pack already, and I never use photoshop on my photos.)

The infernal fire balls shooting up from the stage continued appropriately for ‘One Way Ticket’ “to hell and back”. Justin had fun getting the audience to exaggeratedly slide up the note on the word “hell” in a sing-a-long, before throwing his shoes and socks into the crowd causing an automatic feeding frenzy. The crowd began to shout “Jeans! Jeans! Jeans!” and there’s no doubt he would have been naked if they had had their way, but instead he rolled up his trouser legs for a sort of eccentric, British beach bum look; I guess those fireballs are even hotter on stage. Indeed, afterwards, bassist Frankie Poullain was complaining of singed locks of hair on Facebook.

‘Till My Heart Explodes’ took the pace down a little, allowing Justin’s falsetto to be even more on show, and was cue for a touching duet on one mike between the Hawkins brothers where Justin put his arm around his brother Dan’s neck with obvious affection. Justin picked up his feet like a sprite, emphasising his de-stockinged feet and organised synchronised clapping with the audience. His connection with the audience was not broken, not even for a milli-second.

With at least one tongue in his cheek, given the lyrics, Justin announced ‘Solid Gold’ for “artists with a dream”, did some mashed potato dancing and brandished a keytar which sounded like a Moog. Apropos his most spectacular stage moves, he started playing the keyboard line from Van Halen’s ‘Jump’, before indeed doing just that from the drum riser to finish.
For ‘Love Is Only A Feeling’ there was tons of knee-high dry ice hanging around on the stage and, with the falsetto harmonies, the stage began to look and sound like heaven. Just over half the set tonight was unsurprisingly from the best known first album. The audience obliged Justin in following his lead with a large arm swing with a finger point over the head and back, before he launched into a finger tapping solo with some lovely licks.

Justin pointed out it’s the last show and got the audience all to bounce for ‘Japanese Prisoner Of Love’, beating his chest and managing a soaring solo, before running off to change his clothes, leaving the drum tech together with his brother and Frankie Poullain to close out the track. Justin soon returned in a scarlet red, chest-exposing, skin-tight jump suit for the final four ‘Permission To Land’ tracks. Firstly ‘Givin’ Up’ and then ‘Get Your Hands Off My Woman’ which was cue for an upside down, scissor kick, handstand on the drum riser lasting several seconds and a Q and A singing session with the crowd. After playing a bit of Memphis-style Blues, Justin instructed the crowd to put away their phones for ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’. To no avail, as there are hundreds of people videoing his walk through the jam-packed audience on the shoulders of a stage hand, as he performed an extended solo to bring the set to an end with ‘Love On The Rocks’.

As usual the Darkness are a hard act to follow, but Black Stone Cherry managed it well, not only with the quality of their material and musicianship, but also with all three frontmen jumping on the platforms and ramps, taking advantage of the stage topography to ring in the changes. They kicked off strongly with ‘Me And Mary Jane’, ‘Burnin’’ and ‘Again’. It struck me that we’ve had the King of Falsetto and now we are having the King of The Deep as I listen to Robertson’s soulful singing. New bassist Steve Jewell seems to have his feet well under the table now, as he struck poses with his leg cocked head-height against the speakers, showing he is now comfortable enough to share some more of the limelight than the last tour, when he was brand new. Ben Wells as usual never stood still, jumping and kicking his legs up in skin-tight motley, half-light, half-dark trews.

The guitars on ‘In My Blood’ sound distinctly Zeppelin-esque as pared back passages of the line “I Hope You Understand” showcased Robertson’s acapella, as he got the crowd to join in and finish the last line on a high. Next up is new single ‘Out Of Pocket’; Robertson invited the audience to “lose their shit” and certainly there’s no loss of energy as the crowd appeared familiar with this new material. Wells celebrated with a jumping kick, before he thanked the audience, and reminded them how far the band have come since the first time they came to the UK (when they found on arrival that the promoter didn’t even know they were coming). This band are old-school and that includes a drum solo, but if you have a drummer like John Bonham, then it is a crime if you don’t. John Fred Young demonstrated just how hard he can hit and twirled his sticks so fast, it was actually hard to see what he was doing.With the band reminding the audience of the triumphal gig at the RAH, the auditorium suddenly became a sea of stars, as people with phones waved their lights for ‘Things My Father Said’ as they joined in to the atmospheric, poignant vocals.

Robertson got the audience to cheer for co-headliner The Darkness as BSC launched ‘White Trash Millionaire’ with its insistent, irresistible rhythm and the catchy-as-hell ‘Blame It On The Boom Boom’. There was, by now, a visible aggressive mosh going on in the often conservative Wembley crowd. Even with these most-famous songs, things were not over, as there was then an energetic version of ‘Lonely Train’, during which Fred Young touchingly embraced Robertson and kissed him on the head. The final encore was the infectious ELO cover ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ from the band’s recent album, its funky feel finishing up with a total party atmosphere.

The Darkness were pretty damn good, excellent in fact. However, Black Stone Cherry also brought it tonight, so there was absolutely no sense of anti-climax, just two great bands with great songs, having a great time – a win win combination. No sense of competition, no big egos, just the best of times for everyone. Lovely to see!

Dawn Osborne

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