Nostalgia, it’s a heady thing. As Hyde Park prepares to host the comeback that’s been more than a decade of jail sentences, drugs and words of bitter love and affection in the making, pictures of the band’s younger days – those rough, ready gigs – fill the screens.
Of course, this one’s more than a little different in character, and turns out to be The Libertines’ Knebworth, for good and bad.
As an energetically greying Pete Doherty launches into ‘Vertigo’ alongside Carl Barât, the free-spirited pulse of the 60,000-strong throng finds itself at odds with this ‘showpiece’ spectacle. Most are distanced from the stage, barricaded behind a sizable VIP-wristbands premium section. When ‘Boys In The Band’ kicks in, chaos ensues – fireworks and flares go off in the crowd and the barricade is broken, causing the first of many crowd crushes and interruptions. Someone at Barclaycard’s British Summer Time obviously didn’t bother to read the memo.
Amid the mayhem, Doherty can be heard urging everyone to “calm down a bit,” which feels a little like the pot calling the kettle black. Drummer Gary Powell and bassist John Hassall also offer up their best crowd control pleadings, but it’s of little use. With bodies literally being carried out on stretchers, only an impromptu rendition of the The Foundations’ ‘Build Me Up Buttercup’ can settle things.
Early B-side ‘The Delaney’, from the ‘Up The Bracket’ single, gets an outing, but things are really whirred by the frenetic ‘Campaign Of Hate’ and ‘Time For Heroes’. For a while, tension hangs heavy on stage, evident in the faces of Hassall and Barat. There’s a fear that no matter how well the band plays – tighter than ever, it turns out – the crowd trouble could turn this into a true ‘Horrorshow’.
Fortunately, Barât takes control by leading a misty eyed sing-along to ‘Music When The Lights Go Out’ and serenading revellers to ‘What Katy Did’ in crisp fashion. But a night of emotion like this belongs to the Clash-laden riffs of ‘The Boy Looked At Johnny’ and ‘Death On The Stairs’. Even if Doherty lacks the full-pelt agility of his leather jacket days, his voice still yields the same deep-throated urgency. The anthemic ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ mixes both elements, notably foretelling the break-up of the band now standing reunited.
Any interaction between Doherty and Barât is universally cheered; a hug before ‘Don’t Look Back Into The Sun’ ensures a ferocious reception. Petrol-fuelled passion compensates for the vocal imperfections as the pair squeals, contorts and screams in the right places. Barât stomps around the stage in his black vest top and skin-tight jeans, playing out the song’s raucous finale under a night sky illuminated with orange flares.
By the end of ‘What A Waster’ people are hanging from the delay towers, causing yet another stoppage. Planning in tatters, Doherty entertains his acolytes with an anecdote about a production manager who said he couldn’t hang the Union Jack, as it was “nothing to be proud about”. “He is Welsh,” quips Doherty, “so I asked him, ‘What about William Blake? What about Johnny Marr? What about Carl Barât?’” Cue ecstatic cheers and a spontaneous rendition of Babyshambles track ‘Albion’, Barât sharing the microphone and singing with the rest of the crowd. It’s a memorable moment of unity.
There’s just about enough cohesion left to rattle through ‘I Get Along’, although this ends with Doherty and Barât pulling each other to the ground in embrace. With only minutes of the set remaining, they recite Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Suicide In The Trenches’, as at 2004’s NME Awards, but this time dedicating it to liberty.
As the set closes, cheers of “Libertine ‘til I die” ring out. The crowd waits for an encore, but the rules are strict round these parts (just ask Paul McCartney). ‘What Became Of The Likely Lads’ is a glaring casualty, but in some senses seems redundant as the big screen confirms two Alexandra Palace dates later this year – a more fitting, sweaty location for this rock ‘n’ roll story to continue.
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