The opening night of The Libertines’ first UK arena tour gets underway in Glasgow with a sense of pomp and grandeur befitting the occasion, as a lone bagpiper strides onto the stage and leads the crowd in a stirring rendition (is there any other sort?) of ‘Flower of Scotland’. It’s shameless populism, of course, but that’s what the Libertines seem to specialise in these days: expertly manipulating their audience’s passions and memories of a particular time and place. Even the newer songs they play tonight are full of nods, winks and allusions to the past, whether they’re as subtle as ‘Fame and Fortune”s rambunctious cry of “To Camden we will crawl!” or as obvious as ‘You’re My Waterloo’, which actually dates all the way back to 1999, and is one of Pete Doherty’s most elegant and affecting love songs (…that’s actually all about Carl Barat.)
Nostalgia suits The Libertines. Musically and philosophically, they have always been a backwards-looking band, always on hand with a self-mythologising yarn or misty-eyed reminiscence of Albion. The difference between them and, for example, The Strokes is that they’re happy to embrace it. Barat croons his way through ‘What Katy Did’ like he’s had a few too many cans at rehearsal, but it makes for a wonderful moment, as does Doherty going off-piste during the intro to ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’ and straight into a shambling cover of Fred Neil’s ‘Everybody’s Talkin”. At one point, two fans in matching military jackets come out and present the band with a tray of drinks; by the time set-closer ‘Don’t Look Back Into The Sun’ comes along, they’re dancing onstage alongside them.
There are bittersweet moments, too. Doherty, introducing ‘Belly of the Beast’, describes it as “a little morality story for you all about a lad called Pete. He was a good lad, he just hung around with the wrong crowd, that’s all…” Later, he dedicates a song to a Glaswegian friend who recently fell into a coma. And the accusation-recrimination karaoke of ‘Can’t Stand Me Now’ and ‘Music When The Lights Go Out’ is always a curious spectacle; you can’t help wondering what those songs actually mean to them now. To the crowd, of course, the answer to that question remains unambiguous: even after all these years, The Libertines still mean a hell of a lot.