The Darkness made a triumphant return to Cleveland Sunday night with a greasy, grimy, gloriously loud set of hard rock at House of Blues.
The cheeky Brits made a splash in 2003 with their debut, Permission to Land, which showcased the quartet’s throwback guitar sounds, deliriously prurient lyrics, and ‘70s glam-rock shtick. Indeed, casual listeners couldn’t tell whether Darkness singer Justin Hawkins was putting them on with his ultra-high squeals, unapologetic come-ons, and penchant for parading about in Freddie Mercury-like cat suits.
But The Darkness was the real deal. Sure, the band’s tandem guitar attack might’ve recalled the glory days of Thin Lizzy and early Iron Maiden—but the passion heard on Permission was sincere, and the boys had the chops to deliver.
Permission was our favorite hard rock release that year.
The Darkness had to cancel a gig at the Agora when Hawkins’ voice went sour and a doctor prescribed some rest. But the band did a fun meet-and-greet at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and made up the concert later that summer at Nautica.
Sophomore effort One Way Ticket to Hell…and Back furthered the group’s slick retro-rock approach, but substance abuse issues had all but shattered The Darkness by late 2006. Hawkins bounced between side projects (British Whale, Hot Leg) in between rehab stints while the other lads carried on with a surrogate singer—and bassist, after Frankie Poullain flew the coup.
Poullain returned with original drummer Ed Graham for reunion album Hot Cakes in 2012. Graham departed (again) thereafter, but The Darkness dudes—now with a clean and sober Justin—galvanized themselves for 2015’s The Last of Our Kind.
“Nothin’s Gonna Stop Us” now, the band might say (to paraphrase one of their many hits).
The April 24th gig was heavy and hilarious, and it was clear from the get-go that Justin’s in better health. Heck, the vocalist even has orthodontic braces on his teeth now to improve his smile. It’s not often a rock and roll front man complements the wires on his choppers with a candy-stripe unitard and cowboy boots, but that’s Justin for you.
The Darkness struck hard and fast upon taking the stage, bludgeoning the near-capacity crowd with the new “Barbarian” before dusting off Permission favorite “Growing On Me.” It was the first of several tracks from the seminal album. In fact, the band played just about all of it.
The grinding, metallic “Mudslide” collided with “Black Shuck” and spilled into “Roaring Waters,” with Hawkins prowling the perimeter with mic in hand, cord trailing behind. Poullain presided at stage left with his signature poof hairdo and handlebar moustache, right hand thrumming a 50th Anniversary Thunderbird bass.
Justin’s brother Dan dazzled on lead guitar, his Les Paul riffs ringing crisp from the Marshall half-stack amplifiers at his back. And new drummer Rufus “Tiger” Taylor knows a thing or two about keeping rhythm for a renegade rock outfit with a banshee lead singer; his father Roger was the drummer for Queen.
Mid-set highlights included “One Way Tickets,” “Love is Only a Feeling,” and “Every Inch of You.” Justin sometimes trapped on a Gibson guitar to bolster his brother, but he slid behind an electric piano for “English Country Garden” and pounded on the keys with his guitar in his lap. He invited female fan Carla Roth (who is not twenty-something) to the stage to dance while the band raged, and dance she did, arms and purple-stockinged legs flying spastically.
The audience fed on the band’s energy and gave it right back. Permission entries like “Get Your Hands Off My Woman,” “Stuck in a Rut,” and “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” were the most familiar to everyone, judging from the enthusiasm with which people sang along with Justin—who ended up body-surfing over the crowd, guitar held aloft as flood lamps flashed behind Dan and Frankie.
Hawkins wasn’t the only rocker who couldn’t keep out of the pit.
Raveneye guitarist Olie Brown leapt down onto the barricade to interact with early-arrivers. It was just one of several cool moves during the Buckinghamshire trio’s incendiary opening set.
Joined by bassist Aaron Spiers and drummer Kev Hickman, Brown worked Clevelanders into a frenzy with muscular sleaze-rock from Raveneye’s aptly-named EP, Breaking Out. “Get It Started,” “Come With Me,” and “Hey Yeah” came off like competent mixes of classic Led Zeppelin and early AC-DC.
Brown’s vocals were a boisterous cross between Paul Rodgers (Bad Company) and Chris Cornell (Soundgarden). During one number he clutched the microphone in his right and fretted his guitar with the left, the notes crying out on contact.
Unwilling to be outshone by the singer’s calisthenics, Spiers stepped into the abyss and thrummed his bass while straddling the expanse between stage and barricade.
Between The Darkness and their able-bodied openers, it was one of the most sensational shows we’ve witness this year.
The lights definitely haven’t gone out yet for the Hawkins.