London's Ally Pally hasn’t had such a sense of the gathering clan since Blur brought Britpop here in ’94.
Libstock 2, and security are jumpy. The big reunion show at Hyde Park in July was a Health And Safety catastrophe, punters scaling speaker scaffolding and vaulting barriers into the Gold Circle like some kind of – spit! – punk gig or something. So this time a calming atmosphere is set from the off. In the grand entrance hall a picket fenced garden has been installed where an East End pub knees up led by Baz & Dave on what appears to be an authentic ‘Joanna’ is underway, while billboards dotted around proclaim that Peter Doherty is in fact a “secret hero”, quietly funding a scheme feeding 1000 homeless people every day. Rather than their chaotic scrappiness, Ally Pally focuses on the other endearing trait that defined The Libertines – unity, brotherhood, the togetherness of an adopted rock’n’roll family. The only grenadier red tunic in sight in the crowd is vastly oversized and on a gentleman old enough to know better, but despite the lack of uniform Ally Pally hasn’t had such a sense of the gathering clan since Blur brought Britpop here in ’94.
It’s also, somewhat ironically, a night of nostalgia for a more, well, nostalgic time. An introductory ten-minute mini-documentary by NME’s own Roger Sargent whisks us back to the good old days of 2002, when The Libertines so thrillingly whisked us back to the better old days of 1947. The irony isn’t lost on the band. “You managed to get a babysitter then?” Doherty asks the crowd, half boggle-eyed Libs virgins, half urch-rock reminiscers. But there’s a real sense of time-warp too: Carl Barat wears the tunic, and Doherty – spiv-sharp and bang on time – isn’t the hollow shell of a performer he’d so recently become. He’s in fine voice and cockily confident, easing into the set with the mid-paced ‘The Delaney’ before cranking up the tempo mid-way through ‘Campaign Of Hate’. If it makes him feel like a knackered banger that needs to warm up to its former horse powers, once he hits his gear and the ‘Up The Bracket’ artwork unravels on the backdrop behind him, he’s flying. ‘Time For Heroes’ skyrockets; ‘Horrorshow’ freewheels. And considering that rehearsals for this gig probably consisted of a five minute jam round the back of some bins in La Pigalle, The Libs are amazingly tight. ‘Vertigo’’s classic rock’n’roll has just the right amount of filth and clatter. ‘The Ha Ha Wall’ captures the fraying, frazzled edge of 60s Stones. ‘Music When The Lights Go Out’ (introduced, teasingly, as “a brand new song” by Pete) is ramshackle enough to be narcotically romantic but not so much that it collapses in a pool of its own buzzing mis-chords. It’s a gloriously unrefined display, tight-knit kids in a riot.
Where, though, is the bruv-luv? At first Carl and Peter seem to be dancing around each other, two opposite ends of the growing-out-of-it spectrum, warily testing the air for the old chemistry. Then the first mike-kiss arrives during ‘Vertigo’ and the sparks fly once more. They gaze adoringly at each other through the shoo-wop swing of ‘What Katie Did’ – Carl wandering the stage guitarless, wielding the microphone like a coke-damaged crooner and Pete going postal on the guitar solo – and things begin to loosen. Pete intersperses songs with unexpected blues licks, reggae breakdowns, cabaret croons from wartime Berlin or snippets of ‘Cockles And Mussels’. A Bugg-style bluegrass jam becomes an epic, arching ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’; Pete and Carl noodle at each other for two minutes until they eventually come across ‘Last Post On The Bugle’. They throw in reverb-drenched rarities from their 1999 demo ‘The Legs 11 Sessions’ – squalor-revelling scrotes called ‘Bucket Shop’ and ‘Love On The Dole’, respectively resembling a 60s detective theme and David Bowie wailing through a wormhole. There are mumbled half-jokes.
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By the time they’ve recaptured their 2003 glory with stampedes through ‘Death On The Stairs’ and Inbetweeners anthem ‘Don’t Look Back Into The Sun’, they’ve revived their sweaty pub repartee too. “Did you understand what he said?” Pete asks as Carl tries to explain they haven’t played ‘You’re My Waterloo’ for a long time, “he said he’s still looking for a cellist for The Jackals and he’ll be holding open auditions round the back of Ally Pally on Sunday.” Then he reads out a fan letter that’s been thrown onstage and throws back a mike stand in return. Even drummer Gary Powell joins in the larks, leaving his kit to sand-dance to a Doherty solo and shout “CENTRE OF THE WOOOORLD!” like a skin-pounding Leonardo Di Caprio. Of course John Hassall remains stoically frozen throughout, the rock around which the Libertines maelstrom gravitates, but there needs to be some solidity to this chaos. As ‘What A Waster’ feeds into a final ‘I Get Along’, Doherty announces “we’re The Libertines and we got back together again” before hoisting Carl on his back and singing QPR anthems like he’s never going to leave the stage. Back together again. Back in the family. Back where he belongs.