With The Libertines, everything’s emotional until it becomes cynical. Or maybe it’s the other way around. In any case, that was the story of their last sojourn to Reading and Leeds back in 2010, two shows laden with six years of expectation, but which ultimately seemed to confirm everyone’s worst fears about why they got back together in the first place. They made a lot of money that weekend (“240k each after tax for me and Carl,” Pete Doherty told NME last year) but the gigs themselves were more memorable for the scenes in the crowd than anything happening onstage.
This time around, things are different, yet oddly unchanged. Tonight’s show takes place under a full moon, but lunacy is in short supply: in contrast to their last visit, when their performance had to be stopped because of crowd safety concerns, this audience are so well-behaved that an indignant-sounding Doherty is moved to ask, “What’s up with you lot tonight, anyway? You’re making us feel really unloved.” At least some of the blame for that must lie with The Libertines themselves – Doherty discordantly clawing his way through ‘Horrorshow’ is enough to make anyone reconsider this band’s ‘ramshackle charm’ – but the real problem is that they simply aren’t suited to shows of this scale, and despite an opening 20 minutes which boasts ‘The Delaney’, ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ and ‘Time For Heroes’, it takes a while for them to get going.
Yet even as the old songs struggle to connect, the new ones provide cause for cautious optimism. ‘Gunga Din’ might be a lesser Libertines single but it’s greeted with roars of approval from the crowd, while ‘You’re My Waterloo’ (“an old new old song,” as Carl wryly introduces it) is a poignant, heart-rending showstopper, which finds Doherty crooning about wanting to “fumigate the demons,” over elegiac piano chords. Curiously enough, it’s in these quieter, less chaotic moments – see also ‘Music When The Lights Go Out’ and ‘What Katy Did’ – where they really seem to come into their own; perhaps they really have mellowed with age.
After returning for the encore, however, there’s barely a pause for breath, as the band rattle through ‘Up The Bracket’, ‘I Get Along’ and ‘What a Waster’ with a bolshy, breakneck intensity. By the time the curtain comes down with ‘Don’t Look Back Into The Sun’, it’s tempting to call the whole thing a triumph, but it’s not quite that – The Libertines wouldn’t be The Libertines without a soupçon of glorious failure somewhere in the mix, and you can’t quite escape the nagging feeling that the band – and the crowd – could have been better tonight. Might might be a different story in Reading…