Review by Pete Finn for MPM
On opening door number 13 of the Metal Planet Music advent calendar, I find a couple of tickets for The Darkness with Massive Wagons at Rock City.
Two bands with arguably two of the most charismatic and dynamic frontmen on the road, in Justin Hawkins and Baz Mills. So MPM Tog Manny and I are heading to Nottingham.
I don’t expect to see any Pantomime Villains tonight, but plenty of festive cheer and party tunes. Arriving at the bar, I find out that there is a ‘The Darkness’ beer available, so it is a diet coke for Manny, and a can of ‘Bells End’ for me, the bar staff have been told to tip it quickly, so you “get a good head”…at £4.80 it had better be.
An aptly dark ale, it was OK. But, £4.80 for a 330ml can…ouch.
Massive Wagons are Baz Mills (vocals), Adam Thistlewaite (guitar), Alex Thistlewaite (drums), Adam ‘Bowzer’ Bouskill (bass) and Stevie Holl (guitar). Now, I’ve never heard it confirmed or denied for that matter, that the band name originated from an attribute of the barmaid in their local boozer.
They have been at the forefront of the New Wave of Classic Rock genre from the offset, supporting and promoting it in many ways, including a ‘Band Aid’ style version of their own monster track ‘Tokyo’. I’ve been fortunate to see Massive Wagons many times, including this September when they closed out the Rockin’ The Bowl Festival with an absolutely storming show. They have five successful albums under their belt, so have a good back catalogue to go at.
With 20 minutes to go the hall is 75% full, and as the lights go out the hall has filled completely. Another respectful showing from the Rock City fans.
Massive Wagons introduce themselves to Rock City with the fast paced ‘Fee Fi Fo Fum’, from ‘Welcome to The World’ they instantly have the crowd jumping, Bowzer’s bass is shaking the room like giants footsteps on the roof, Baz in his Dennis The Menace top is stood on a monitor, mic stand in the air. Jack and The Beanstalk lyrics, very fitting.
No pausing, and it’s ‘In It Together’ the opening track from their latest album ‘House of Noise’ a riff laden anthem, with clever and personal lyrics, we get to join in with the ‘Wo-ahs’. The energy within the band is tremendous, the crowd are loving it.
Watching and listening to Barry Mills, I’m thinking that if Dave Lee Roth and Noddy Holder were to have a ‘Love Child’ it would probably grow up to be Baz. ‘China Plates’ from their well acclaimed 2018 album ‘Full Nelson’ is about society’s obsession with Social Media, and how the posts are interpreted, this is a high-octane track with intense lead breaks and thunderous drums from the Thistlewaite brothers, the end has Baz pointing at the crowd, “You, You, You”.
We revisit the new album for ‘Pressure’ this is hard hitting, brash with a punky tempo track, and sharp vocals. The guitar work from Holl and Thistlewaite is incredible. The sound and power of Bowzer’s bass is phenomenal, it feels like someone is dancing on your chest. A huge cheer from the crowd shows their appreciation.
Baz asks, “So far, so good Nottingham?” the answer is a unanimous “Yes”. The immediately recognisable riff introduces the second single from ‘House of Noise’, ‘Bangin’ In Your Stereo’ Alex’s pounding drum and Baz’s clever lyrics, this track has the Rock City faithful reaching for their air guitars, middle fingers are raised in time with the lyric, it concludes with a medley of The Clash’s ‘I Fought The Law’ and Cheap Trick’s ‘Surrender’.
Baz wants to know how many people have seen ‘The Wagons’ before, the show of hands gives a 50/50 split, judging by the crowd in tonight, we’ll all make the effort to see them again. The driving guitars and drums of ‘Ratio’ rip through the hall, a slower beat filled track.
The heads are nodding and feet stomping along. Baz’s head flicks are choreographed with Adam’s riffs to the note. The final song is the wonderful tribute to Status Quo’s Rick Parfitt, ‘Back to The Stack’, the band line up for the start in the iconic Quo line. The crowd bounce the whole way through, glasses (mostly empty by now) are raised aloft. Baz patrols the stage with his mic stand above his head, looking a bit like a Dalek.
Massive Wagons performance was way more than a ‘warm up’ act, it was a, cooked in the ‘flames of a fire pit’ act. Awesome.
Setlist: Fee Fi Fo Fum; In It Together; China Plates; Pressure; Bangin’ In Your Stereo (Medley); Back to The Stack
Originating from Lowestoft and formed way back in 2000, having recorded an impressive seven studio albums, all of which have made the Top 20 including a number 1, The Darkness have become one of the mainstays of British Rock, this band are well loved, and every rock fan can name some of The Darkness’ tracks. The current line-up which has been together since 2015 has Justin Hawkins (vocals/guitar/keys), Dan Hawkins (guitar), Frankie Poullain (bass) and Rufus Taylor (drums) This set of 22 dates is to promote their new album ‘Motorheart’ released last month.
Arriving on stage to the sound of bagpipes, Justin Hawkins sporting a leather and chain cap and leather waistcoat looking a lot like the 70’s Kenny Everett’s character ‘Sid Snot’. Their first offering is ‘Welcome Tae Glasgae’ from ‘Motorheart’, apparently as the tour bus arrives in Glasgow one of their favourite places to play, the band shout out ‘Welcome Tae Glasgae’ a short drum and riff laden track with a suitable ‘Highland Fling’ sound.
Next up are a couple of The Darkness classics ‘One Way Ticket’ the title track from their 2005 album, Justin has ditched the cap, he starts the clapping and bouncing, the audience take on the lead vocals. Then from the debut 2003 album ‘Permission to Land’, ‘Growing on Me’, Justin’s shirt is off too, a tide of fist pumps ripple across the masses. I look around the crowd and everyone is either singing along, pogo-ing or both…an indication of why the famous Rock City floor is so sticky. The brothers have a synchronized leap from the drum riser to finish.
Now it’s time for the title track of the new album ‘Motorheart’, a fabulous song about a sex robot, a mix of tempos and riffs, some real heavy riffs and a magnificent Hawkins solo, Justin’s trademark pitch is exchanged briefly mid track as he narrates the reason why he bought her.
Elliot (apologies if this is wrong, it was hard to make out the name) appears on stage playing the cowbell, Rufus is off his stool as he hits the skins and cymbals. This track has everything, it’s a bit Motorhead, a bit Sabbath, utterly brilliant. ‘Open Fire’ taken from ‘The Last of Our Kind’, this has a jangly guitar sound a bit Big Country/Simple Minds running in the background then neatly laid over the top is a full-on rock track. Frankie is strutting the stage grinning and nodding at the crowd. Justin is windmilling his guitar like Pete Townshend.
Justin thanks the Rock City crowd, it was the first date on this tour to sell out, Nottingham is his new “Forever” home. We return to the new album for ‘Sticky Situations’, a slower number with Justin’s voice being quietly accompanied with harmonies. Ian (I think that’s what Justin called him) is strumming an acoustic guitar, giving the track some softness. Time for us to raise our swaying arms.
We jump back to the first album with ‘Givin’ Up’, the crowd have taken over the vocals for the chorus as Justin points his mic at the audience, the band are smiling, we’re all enjoying this one. Travelling from one end of The Darkness’s timeline to the other, from the latest album ‘It’s Love, Jim’, with a less than subtle nod to the iconic space travel adventures of ‘Star Trek’, it’s a track about an intimate encounter with an alien, superb, maximum points for originality.
This is a full assault on your body, the riffs and drums are powerful enough to launch the whole of Rock City into space, Justin’s vocals are warp speed. The stage is all flashing red and blue lights, just like the scene of a major incident. This track was over far too quickly.
Frankie has changed out of his leather bikers’ jacket, and is now in a sort of leopard print smoking jacket, pinched from Hugh Hefner’s wardrobe maybe? ‘Black Shuck’ in English Folklore is the name given to a ghostly black dog which is said to roam the coastline and countryside of East Anglia.
Racing guitars, thudding bass and Justin’s ferocious vocal bring this beast to life. ‘Heart Explodes’ we clap this one in, a ballad about a breakup, then trying to repair and reconcile from the 2019 release ‘Easter Is Cancelled’. Ian is back on the acoustic, Hawkins voice is reflective and emotional, with Taylor, Poullain, and Hawkins musicianship supporting and understanding. We clap ‘Radio Ga-Ga’ style to the end.
“For a Monday night, this is absolutely fucking brilliant” a smiling Justin says to the crowd. We’re teased into serenading the intro for ‘Friday Night’ from the first album. This has a happy bouncy feel, with a prominent guitar, a real feel-good sound. The glitter ball is lit up, ‘Love Is Only A Feeling’ has the band in a philosophical mood, the sound is a bit ‘Highlands of Scotland’ but, includes a series of elaborate Justin Hawkins lead breaks that keeps the sentiment honest.
His brother, playing his guitar held high, with the headstock kissing the ceiling. We charge head on into ‘Japanese Prisoner of Love’ this is a no-nonsense rock track, with tempo changes, crashing drums, balanced harmonies, guitar riffs and solo’s and thumping bass. Everything is excessive, I loved it.
There’s no doubt which track is next as the stage is bathed in gold light. ‘Solid Gold’ another from the 2017 album ‘Pinewood Smile’, straight from Dan Hawkins’ riff intro, his brother is strutting around the stage leading the crowd in their hand clapping.
Eastbound’ from the new album, is a more melodic track, with a comforting guitar sound, the vocal changes as Justin narrates the lyrics, a shattering drum roll signifies the end of the narration and we’re back to some good old-fashioned rock. The stage lighting turns blood red, ‘Barbarian’ has a lashing Frankie Poullain intro, and his bass skills are evident throughout, the chorus has Justin yodelling like Thijs Van Leer from Focus. This gets a big mosh pit started.
‘Get Your Hands Off My Woman’ was the band’s first single in 2003, anyone who had any beer left in their plastic glass launches it, the room rises as one, everyone is jumping up and down, the place has just exploded. Confetti from a previous event is shaken from the overhead lights.
Get your hands where I can see them” screams Justin. There’s no stopping, it’s ‘I Believe in A Thing Called Love’ which has an amazing 162 Million plays on Spotify, this is a legend. Justin calls a stop a few minutes in, there’s too many phones out, “watch the band with your eyes not with a lens, you don’t know what’s going to happen, enjoy tonight it’s could be the last time for a while” we resume, there’s a great guitar sound all the way through. We clap, we sing along, we cheer, we bounce. The Rock City floor flexes. The band leave the stage with the glitter ball spinning. Two exceptional tracks to close the set.
We wait, the crowd chanting “we want more” and “Darkness, Darkness”. We still wait…When they return, we see why the wait was long, Rufus is dressed as a Christmas tree, Justin and Ian as Santa, Dan is wearing a Christmas jumper, Elliot is dressed as a lobster?? I have absolutely no idea what Frankie is dressed as…
The encore brings out the Christmas Selection box, first out is a short rendition of ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ including the line ‘logs on the fire and pissing on the tree’. Then a version of Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’. Justin tells us that Gary Barlow is at the nearby Nottingham Arena tonight, he has a tongue-in-cheek dig at playing one of his songs before giving up, everyone is glad. The show finale is the very apt ‘Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)’, hands and arms swaying. ‘Snow’ falls from the ceiling. The crowd show their gratitude, long after the band has left the stage.
There is absolutely no doubt that we have been to a Darkness show, it certainly wasn’t a Christmas Pantomime, but it has a lot of similarities, crazy, unpredictable, fun, silly, over the top and most of all a fantastic evening’s entertainment performed by a cast that gave everything.
Setlist: Welcome Tae Glasgae; One Way Ticket; Growing on Me; Motorheart; Open Fire; Sticky Situations; Givin’ Up; It’s Love Jim; Black Shuck; Friday Night; Love Is Only A Feeling; Japanese Prisoner of Love; Solid Gold; Eastbound; Barbarian; Get Your Hands Off My Woman; I Believe In A Thing Called Love;
Encore: Mistletoe & Wine; Last Christmas; Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End)
Photography by Manny Manson for MPM