It’s 6pm and I’m about to leave work to spend a night in with EastEnders and the new Royal Headache album, when I get a call from The Libertines PR man and all round London music legend Tony Linkin.
“Matt, the band are playing Camden Blues Kitchen tonight. Keep schtum, come and meet us in the Dublin Castle.”
While I’ve seen every plausible incarnation of The Libertines more times than I can remember now, I know that this kind of opportunity doesn’t come along very often. The big reunion and festival shows are all very well, but really, what every Libertines die-hard wants is to see Pete, Carl, John and Gary letting rip in the back room of a pub again – and tonight I’m no different.
By 8pm I get to The Dublin Castle, which hasn’t really changed since the Libs were playing gigs to non-committal A&R men here back in the ’90s. Madness on the jukebox, Moz on the walls and Steve Lamacq at the bar – plus a smattering of Libertines family and friends milling about, plus Carl, John and Gary. Half an hour later and there’s a bit of commotion in the stage room, and Linkin bounds over saying, “Your man Doherty’s about to go on in there…”.
Surprised, because nobody saw him come in, we walk into the cramped and pin-drop silent room to see Pete making his way onstage at the request of the band who are already playing. They vacate and Doherty starts strumming the chords to ‘Albion’ as Katia, his girlfriend, plays harmonica. Soon enough Carl’s up there too, showcasing his drumming skills. Gary fans don’t fret, Mr Powell has little to worry about here (sorry Carl).
After that, and with word beginning to get out about something Libertines-related going on in Camden, the band take the entire pub with them and walk the short distance to the Blues Kitchen. The fact they’re headlining festivals the world over this summer bothers nobody, and needless to say numerous passers by gawp and take photos – even more so when someone accidentally gets the wrong entrance to the venue and momentarily leads us all into the pizza restaurant next door…
Inside the Blues Kitchen and the atmosphere’s charged. There’s been a fair amount of skepticism about the Libs reunion from some corners – standard fare for anything like this really – and I’m surprised to see few of those naysayers in attendance tonight, along with a mass of kids who could barely have been in primary school when ‘Up The Bracket’ was released, and a good chunk of fans from back in the day. Furthermore, right at the back of the venue, a restaurant full of bemused customers are left wondering why half of London has suddenly descended on this previously quiet pub.
Sign up for the newsletter
Imminently, they find out. Truth be told, the Libs are a little slow to get into the swing of things. First track ‘Fame & Fortune’ is a newie which takes its cue from The Small Faces (incidentally it’s also a total homage to Camden – “Like two soldiers responding to a call/To Camden we will crawl” goes the chorus), while ‘Death On The Stairs’ is beset with guitar problems for Pete. Eventually, he downs his instrument completely and dives headfirst into the crowd…only to be pulled back by security…only to crowd dive again…only to be pulled back again… He does this four times in a row, before the bouncer just gives up and walks off. The entire place erupts, lighting a spark that’s at full throttle by the time the band get to ‘Vertigo’ a few minutes later. From here on in the gig becomes something truly special – a rare opportunity to see a world-class band up close, playing pretty much everything they can remember, Beatles in Hamburg-style.
On reflection, it’s right up there with the very best Libertines nights pre-fame and pre-tabloid notoriety, except that this time everything feels nice and boozy, rather than druggy.
There are countless high points, the likes of which most bands would take years to cultivate, and probably then spend years trying to artlessly re-instigate: From the naive way they rattle off the jazzy, oft-forgotten acoustic gem ‘France’, to Pete’s surprise declaration that “Carl’s ambition always been to stagedive all the way from the stage to the bar” after ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’.
Even though Barat initially looks sheepish about that statement, shaking his head, he dives straight into the throng who duly carry him to the back of the room. When he returns a few minutes later it’s with a full bottle of Havana rum, which he proceeds to pour into Pete’s mouth while he’s mid-solo on ‘What Katie Did’. Again, the crowd go wild. To call it ‘exciting’ doesn’t even come close – the two frontmen are magnetic together.
Of the new songs they play, single ‘Gunga Din’ fares the best, while a rollicking ‘What Became Of The Likely Lads’ turns into a mass sweaty singalong, complete with Pete throwing his guitar, then mic stand into the audience (the latter hits the guy in front of me square on the nose, but he still can’t bring himself to leave). By the end of the track, Pete’s also managed to rip the nail off his finger – as painful to look at as it sounds, especially when he bites the entire thing off two seconds later.
Following that, things turn really weird. We get a full hour of covers, fan requests and random tracks – a mash-up of The Strokes’ ‘Someday’ segues effortlessly into ‘Rudie Can’t Fail’ by The Clash, while Pete teaches the rest of the band ‘I Wanna Be Adored’ by The Stone Roses as he and the audience sing along. Somehow they even manage to throw in a cover of Ritchie Cordell’s ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ – A UK Number One for US pop singer Tiffany in 1988 – and not murder it.
It’s chaos, but the best kind of chaos. ‘The Good Old Days’ is tight and intense, while ‘Music When The Lights Go Out’ and some Pete-only versions of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Tears Dry On Their Own’ and Alan Wass’ ‘Hired Gun’ are more somber. Both lost London friends of Doherty, for a moment it looks as if the gig might end up turning in a completely different direction.
It’s only when Carl starts ‘What A Waster’ that Pete snaps back into place, screaming the lyrics before beckoning the entire crowd onstage. Of course, they join him, sending security mental as the band close the set like they once did all great Libertines gigs: by grappling for a spare mic on the floor and reciting cockney standard ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’.
And the punchline? It all makes complete sense, because like much of what they’ve done since their triumphant Hyde Park reunion gig last year, there’s a genuineness to Pete and Carl that just can’t be faked, a real feeling that they can still turn the banal into something triumphant. The gig has been as good as any time I’ve seen them in last 13 years, no doubt.