Liking The Darkness is not cool. After the end of a committed, five-year relationship, I entered the OkCupid-sphere and carefully crafted my profile, especially my list of favorite musicians – 50 artists including Otis Redding, The Vandals, Yngwie Malmsteen, Smashing Pumpkins, Black Lips, Chance the Rapper, X Japan, Outkast — and somewhere in the middle was The Darkness.
And then, after meeting someone seemingly worthy on OkC, it was time for our first and only date. After exchanging pleasantries we got down to the nitty-gritty – the music we listed in our profiles. She catalogued nothing but off-the-beaten-path, indie bands. After she called The Darkness a “fake band,” I spent the rest of our date defending their worth. Needless to say, we didn’t work out.
To me, there is no such thing as a guilty pleasure, and I unapologetically like glam, hair metal, and music that generally only gets played at sporting events and trailer parks. I love these artists because they speak to me in some capacity – be it campiness, taking themselves too seriously, or a multitude of songs about young girls turned to prostitution when they come to California to make it big (there are at least a dozen of these). Hipster street cred isn’t necessary for a band to fly with me.
I am going to make some bold, hyperbolic statements starting with this one – Permission to Land, The Darkness’s debut album, is one of the top 10 guitar albums of all time. If you can sit down and listen to that album and tell me the guitar tone and playing is not some of the best ever, I gladly will walk out on our date, too. My second hyperbolic statement: The Darkness is the best touring rock band right now. They display a seamless mix of hard rock, camp, pop, Spinal Tap, improvisational humor, Queen, Vaudeville, vocal and guitar chops, and inimitable energy. From start to finish, you cannot look away from the stage and that is because what is going on up there is a thing of rare beauty. One that does not happen anymore thanks to thousands of ubiquitous shoe-gazers, millennials, and guitar solo-averse bands. The Darkness will look you right in the eye and fuck you with unabashed bravado, not flip you over and hit it from the back to avoid eye contact.
It is 10:00 p.m. at the War Memorial Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, and lead singer/lead guitarist Justin Hawkins comes strutting onstage in a red striped catsuit/corset hybrid with a matching red silk shirt. He parades around and waves to the crowd – he already owns them all.
And then you are hit by the blistering riffage of Dan Hawkins’ (rhythm guitar) Les Paul run through a crunchy Marshall Stack on the 2015 single “Barbarian” – it is simple, straightforward, and tasty. The rhythm section — fro-donning bassist Frankie Poullain and newest replacement drummer (2015) and son of Queen’s Roger Taylor, Rufus Taylor, take hold as Justin launches into singular, soaring vocals that undeniably hearken to Freddie Mercury. And when the roadie brings Justin his glamorous, white Les Paul Custom, he sears into a snappy, melodic solo that stays just under guitar-wankery shreddage. This is the point in the show where Darkness virgins, who reluctantly tagged along with friends, probably will begin to wonder, “Just how talented is this Justin guy?” Then he sits down and plays the keys and guitar on the crowd-pleaser “Friday Night.”
While the arena is only half-full, there were no crowds this captivated and participatory at all the shows I went to in 2015 combined. They sing every word, laugh at every off-the-cuff joke, and smile at each other, knowing they are part of a small army of fans who know to appreciate a good thing when they have it. When Poullain brings out his cowbell for “One Way Ticket,” the crowd loses it and chants, “COWBELL, COWBELL, COWBELL.” Between breaks they randomly start chanting, “RUFUS, RUFUS, RUFUS” – which leads to an impromptu 10-second hammering solo. And do not forget about the call-and-response break when Justin launches into a frenetic flurry of notes at all frequencies while every audience member tries to keep up (and fails hilariously).
Justin feeds off the energy, taking, then wearing articles of clothing from fans. It started with a band hat that he shamelessly plugged, but ended in an epic women’s denim jacket and lasik inspired, full-cover sunglasses. “Denim – the thinking man’s leather,” Justin affectionately interjected to the crowd. Everyone, band included, belly laughed. And that is the thing, The Darkness have fun.
Even if stripped of his musical ability and talent, Justin Hawkin’s energy is electrically magnetic – nobody can look away and nobody wants to. Maybe it was the leg-clapping headstand, executed from the drum riser during “Get Your Hands off My Woman.” Or perhaps the show’s 15-minute encore performance of “Love on the Rocks with No Ice” when the older Hawkins brother climbed atop a roadie’s shoulders and searingly soloed for three minutes while traversing through the audience.
Whether there are five or 5,000 people there, The Darkness/Hawkins make you feel like they are playing for you – and that is the definition of a good show. They own you and you do not want to be released back to the world where you have to return to your mundane desk job. Nobody takes Molly at a Darkness show, because nobody has to. You want to be there and present. There are no political statements or depressing songs (though drug use themes are present).
Viva the guitar solo! Viva the falsetto vocals! Viva the cat suit and jump-splits! Viva The Darkness!
And if you find a fan of The Darkness on OkCupid, put a ring on it.
Author and Photographer: Ryan Fleisher
Additional Photos from the evening: