I’ve spoken to some of NME’s resident Libertines scholars and we think that the last time Pete Doherty, Carl Barât, Gary Powell and John Hassall all took to a stage together anywhere in mainland Europe was most likely 20 February 2003, at Loppen in Copenhagen. As with much Libertines lore the truth is clouded with uncertainty and a fog of drugs, but in any case it was certainly over a decade ago.
The most surprising thing about their return to continental gigging in Lisbon was that they turned up not just on time but even fractionally early – starting into ‘The Delaney’ promptly before quarter past midnight, after the strains of Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’ had died away from over the tannoy. While The Libertines turned up, it’s worth noting that not a lot of Portuguese did – the crowd was smaller than it had been for Arctic Monkeys and The Black Keys, and very sparse indeed compared to the more mainstream likes of Bastille and Imagine Dragons. Of the hardcore who did turn up, most seemed to be British exiles enjoying a weekend in the sun with their heroes. What the Portuguese missed was a predictably ramshackle set, but it shone in brief flashes like pearls in muck. Here’s a motley handful:
It’s a “jolly holiday”
The thing about The Libertines is that they’re the perfect antidote to typical top-billings if you agree with The Orwells that festival headliners like the Arctic Monkeys are boring because even their banter is rehearsed. “Come and see us instead,” Pete Doherty seems to shrug, “I haven’t even bothered to rehearse the songs.” The opening salvo of ‘The Delaney’, ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Campaign of Hate’ go noticeably awry, with Doherty missing cues and his voice swinging haphazardly around the tune like a drunk trying to fit a key in a lock. He’s sweating profusely, his skin the texture of water-bloated fast food chicken. Still, he starts to win the crowd back after exuberant versions of ‘Time For Heroes’ and ‘Horrorshow’ and he excitedly bursts into a version of ‘Jolly Holiday’ from the Mary Poppins’ soundtrack. “It’s a jolly holiday with Carlos,” he sings, and his enthusiasm is catching.
Gary brings good karma
Doherty’s louche approach to both playing style and personal hygiene is in stark contrast to drummer Gary, who looks like he’s spent the last decade ripping phone books in half. His extended military drum intro to ‘Begging’ is a highpoint of the set, and before the encore, he sprints to the front mic to scream, ‘LIIISBOOON!’, his arms outstretched and his face a mask of pure joy. Still, you’d be pretty happy too if you didn’t have to play Dirty Pretty Things songs anymore.
‘Don’t Look Back’, Pete
Doherty’s confidence wavers noticeably throughout the set, presumably depending on how well he remembers the song. The life he’s lived during the intervening years have robbed him of some of his shade and subtlety, which aren’t great things to lose if you profess to be a poet of the people or even just a working, functioning professional musician. There are glimpses of the old fire when the confidence comes back, and it’s flowing for ‘Don’t Look Back Into The Sun’. He seems at the peak of his powers in that moment. Maybe there’s a message in there; let’s see what happens with the planned new album.
Carl’s solo trip to ‘France’
There’s a theatre company who visit festivals like Secret Garden Party to perform something called ‘Shitfaced Shakespeare’. It’s abridged versions of plays by the Bard, with a twist: they draw lots before the show and one cast member does the whole thing blitzed out of their tiny thespian mind. The humour arises from the fact that it’s a different person every night, and the rest of the cast have to figure out how best to accommodate their slurring, forgetful compatriot. I imagine this is a little bit like being in The Libertines, except – surprise! – it’s always Pete Doherty’s who’s drawn the short straw. With this in mind, Carl Barât has to carry much of the set but he pulls it off with aplomb. The solo intro to ‘France’ which opens the encore, before he’s gradually joined by the rest of the band, shows the heartfelt and beautiful side of The Libertines is still there under all the laddy boisterousness.
They keep on keeping on
The boys in the band are predictably under-rehearsed and their performances are scrappy, but the best sign for the future of The Libertines is how palpably enthusiastic they are to be there. Even John, who spends most of the set looking like he’s just come straight from work, cracks a smile at the end. It’s Doherty’s puppyish enthusiasm that brings them back on to do ‘The Ha Ha Wall’ after everyone thinks the set is over. He grabs his guitar and starts strumming, refusing to accept that the show’s over. Even when it finally is he can be seen shouting something unheard into a now-dead microphone, and then scampering back on to wrap himself in the Portuguese flag that he was earlier wearing tied tightly round his leg. Is it too much to suggest that the future of the band relies on Doherty’s ability to transform a tourniquet into a proud standard worth bearing once more?