THE DARKNESS - 4/04/2006 @ Metro City, X-Press

With far less grandeur (or grandstanding perhaps) than anyone was expecting, The Darkness took the stage quite simply, under a wash of green light and strange Scottish loops, and began with little fuss. A far cry from their flamboyant Big Day Out performance a couple of years back, this was The Darkness in club mode. Wearing a very simple blouse-and-jeans ensemble (well, as simple as a blouse-and-jeans ensemble can be on a grown man) singer Justin Hawkins looked far less camp than he has in the past, with not a one-piece jumpsuit in sight. His guitarist brother Dan was, familiarly, equipped with his wardrobe full of Thin Lizzy shirts, but the club Darkness is a far less gimmicky affair than the festival Darkness, which actually seemed to save the music from being overshadowed by histrionics. Opening with newie Knockers, the band set the agenda of the night, which was very much to showcase album number two as though it was priority number one. The order and placement of songs, as a result, certainly left a lot to be desired, but when that's the only complaint you walk away from a gig with, you've been party to a pretty amazing band.

Throughout the set, Justin was less about star jumps and more interested in giving a strong vocal delivery, and by god he did just that. While there was the odd shaky note or two at the band's Big Day Out performance, the poodle-haired minstrel was confidently pitch perfect two years on. His guitar playing has probably been without fault for the past 10 years, but even that seemed more precise, yet loose, than on their last Perth visit. The lack of aerobic movement from the frontman was thus compensated for in other areas, and in terms of visual entertainment, both Dan and new bassist Richie provided constant movement from the wings of the stage.

Through a list of new songs the band ploughed - Hazel Eyes, Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time, Girlfriend etc - breaking the set almost in half with older, more familiar singles Love Is Only A Feeling, Growing On Me, Get Your Hands Off My Woman and so on. At different stages an EMF-looking synth ensemble was wheeled onto the stage, from which Hawkins lead the band - side on - through the (predominantly new album) ballads. Occasionally making the most of the opportunity to throw in a few 'keyboard' gags (such as starting to play Van Halen's Jump) Hawkins looked like a child with a new toy. Not surprisingly, given his guitar and vocal skills, he turned out to be somewhat of a gifted pianist, seemingly as confident tickling the ivory as he is bending the nickel. Although the pace reduced during the ballad moments, the energy and vibe did not, and with boppier numbers such as the irrepressibly cute Friday Night getting the keyboard treatment, The Darkness' songs sounded closer to their recorded version than one would expect in a live delivery.

Whipping off his shirt to reveal an unexpected gut, the otherwise-scrawny Justin Hawkins strutted around the stage with good humour, waggling his tiny arse at anyone and everyone. Of particular hilarity was his knack for arse-wiggling in synch with his guitar soloing, a choreography that brought images of a pre-pubescent Hawkins practising such moves in his childhood bedroom. On stage, there is little separating Hawkins' persona from that of a child's. He has fun, no matter what, and truly looks like he wouldn't want to be anywhere else, doing anything but playing. As such, and in a world of shoe-gazing malcontents, Hawkins truly deserves to be a rock star, as he hams it up for the benefit of those who made him one... the fans.

Knowing how to work fans can be a hit-and-miss affair, but if you are a touring band playing Australian shows, the one sure-fire way to win the crowd is to play an AC/DC song or two, and thanks to bassist Richie's convincingly solid vocals, The Darkness' version of Highway To Hell tore the roof off the place. A band sporting a fairly obvious penchant for Accadacca already, The Darkness were right at home with the Aussie classic, delivering a (dare I say it) perfect rendition. Sadly, the familiar introduction to Thunderstruck that followed was but a tease. Bastards.

The weird order of the setlist, mentioned earlier, really started to kick in around the end when, having played all of their most popular songs and an AC/DC cover, the remainder of The Darkness' set / encore was made up of new songs. Yes, the songs are great, but to waver the opportunity to send out the night with one of the 'hits' or indeed an unexpected cover, seemed odd and ill-advised. The climax, as it were, was somewhat anti. Still, all of the songs you could possibly want to hear in a Darkness set were there, and played perfectly, so 'nuff said.

After a brief and almost unnoticed costume change, the band returned to the stage for one last song - the prophetic Bald - after which they threw stuff into the crowd, took a bow, then bowed out triumphantly. A very gracious band, The Darkness' biggest asset is their personality, not only for how it shapes their music into such balls of fun, but also how it shines from the stage. As close to rock stars as they may be, watching The Darkness feels more like watching your mates' band down the local boozer. You feel the same connection, and the same pride. Only the really special bands bring that out in a crowd.

MIKE WAFER