Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Rock n' Roll Returns! THE DARKNESS and FOXY SHAZAM Concert Review!

The Return of THE DARKNESS: The Darkness and Foxy Shazam - Live at the House of Blues!

- When I was in college, a song called "I Believe In a Thing Called Love," by an up-and-coming band called The Darkness, took over the local airwaves and seemingly became the biggest thing since sliced bread. In Boston at that time, you'd hear it on rock radio, at cool establishments like Newbury Comics, blasted from dorm rooms - and suddenly, in a rock n' roll landscape dominated by nu-metal, classic rock had returned.

I loved the bombastic stylings of "I Believe In a Thing Called Love," and quickly purchased the band's debut CD - Permission to Land. I was blown away. From top to bottom, the album was loaded up with rock n' roll goodness. Just about every song was great, and I was somewhat amazed by the fact that this sort of music was alive and kicking in the era of Limp Bizkit and Staind.

Of course, The Darkness performed their operatic rock with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor. The lyrics to their songs were occasionally sincere, but more often would get completely over-the-top, laced with scandalous double meanings and jokey homages to the excesses of glam-rock glory. The band's music videos didn't help the perception that The Darkness was some kind of elaborate inside joke - they were totally insane and undeniably goofy. But to many, like me, who loved the craziness of 80's arena rock, The Darkness were a glorious, semi-self-aware throwback.

However, the band's meteoric rise ended all too early. They came out with only two albums (their second, One Way Ticket To Hell ... And Back, was just as good if not better than their debut), and then broke up due to infighting, drug use, and creative disagreements. In short, The Darkness were now living through a Spinal Tap-like parody of the classic rock bands they paid homage to - rise, fall, and all. But man, I kept hoping that the band would get back together. Even though they could be jokey and over-the-top, The Darkness had legit classic rock chops - and their second album seemed to mark a slight shift to less satirical homage and more of an original sound and serious tone. They seemed to have what it took to be the modern-day torchbearers of rock n' roll.

And now, several years after prematurely fading into the sunset ... THE DARKNESS have returned, and are having one more moment in the sun. The band is back together, a new album is in the works, and "I Believe in a Thing Called Love" hit #1 on the iTunes rock charts after being featured in a popular Superbowl commercial starring the members of The Darkness. Best of all, the band returned to America on their first tour in years, finally giving fans like me a chance to see the band live in concert.

So this past Sunday, I journeyed to the hallowed halls of the House of Blues Hollywood to - finally! - see The Darkness live. My parents were in town visiting for the long holiday weekend, so my brother and I had to ditch them for the night in order to fulfill our unholy duty and worship at the altar of rock and roll. Now, I had been to the House of Blues before but never for a concert. In many ways, it's a great venue - great atmosphere, a cool setup with a balcony circling the main stage, and decent visibility from most angles. The one downside is just that it's a standing room only venue and it got absolutely *packed* once The Darkness took the stage, as people flooded into the lower stage area where we had staked out a spot. So yeah, there were some uncomfortable moments where we were completely sandwiched by the people in front of us and behind us. Ultimately, though, it was awesome being part of such an energetic, packed house that was electric with excitement over the long-awaited return of The Darkness. And who knows, maybe one day I'll get to see the band in a huge arena. They've got plenty of stadium-friendly rock anthems, that's for sure.

Anyways, the show opened with a band called Crown Jewel Defense that was pretty decent. They seemed like a bunch of guys who really, really loved 80's rock and decided to do a tribute band of sorts. They could shred pretty hard, and the singer had a melodic growl of a voice that reminded me of the singer from Faith No More. They just needed some catchier songs and a bit more stage presence.

But then ... holy lord ... my mind was completely blown by the awesomeness that was FOXY SHAZAM. I knew basically nothing about the band before this show, except that a pretty large number of fans in attendance seemed to be there to see 'em - and as I realized that, my expectations began to rise. But good god - when Foxy took the stage, my jaw hit the floor about 5 seconds in and stayed there for the duration of their 40 minute set. Singer Eric Sean Nally set the tone early. He strode onstage looking like a mix of Freddie Mercury, Iggy Pop, and Joey Ramone, and he said something like: "I know that you guys in LA aren't shocked by much, you've seen it all. You aren't shocked by much, but let me just say this: I used to be a woman, and now ... I'm a man!" And at that, the band launched into a whirlwind rendition of "The Church of Rock n' Roll." It was amazing. Eric Nally bounced around the stage like a man possessed, somersaulting, leaping, karate-kicking, doing the worm. Keyboardist Schuyler White pounded on the ivories as if in a rock n' roll trance. He vaulted his instrument into the crowd. He juked, jived, and shimmied from side to side. He played the keyboard with his feet, stomping up and down. Top to bottom, every member of Foxy Shazam seemed to just explode in an orgy of barely-controlled chaos. Nally was the strange but charismatic ringleader of this rock n' roll circus - telling rambling stories, jokes, dancing like a madman, and even smoking eleven lit cigarettes at once before *eating them*, in a stunt he half-jokingly claimed he hated to do, but felt he had to now that audiences expected it of him. The whole thing was surreal and hypnotic and awesome. I've never seen a rock performance this energetic or insane.

But Foxy Shazam's music was kickass even regardless of the theatrics and stagemanship. They combine rock guitar with horns and keyboards for a rich, full sound that sounds like Queen on speed. But Eric Nally has pipes that would give Freddie Mercury a run for his money. His speaking voice is a high-pitched squeak, but when the man sings (and I guess the woman thing was a joke?), he belts out his tunes with a Meatloaf-like intensity and theatricality. And the songs are great - many are catchy as hell and just great, instant-classic rock anthems. I've had songs like "Killin' It," "Holy Touch," "The Temple," and "I Like It" in my head since Sunday.

Suffice it to say, FOXY SHAZAM was the big surprise of the night, and I became an instant fan. This is just an awesome rock n' roll band that deserves to be the biggest band in the world. And who knows, maybe they will be.

And then, after a lengthy intermission ... Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town" hit the HoB's sound system, and the crowd knew that the main attraction was imminent. Finally, The Darkness stormed onto the stage - singer Justin Hawkins in his trademark red, white, and blue leather ensemble - and blasted the doors down with Black Shuck, the first song off of Permission to Land. As the crowd pumped their fists and chanted the chorus in unison, it was clear - The Darkness - and maybe, by extension, rock n' roll - was back, baby!

The band performed just about every song off of Permission to Land, and several from One Way Ticket to Hell. They also did a couple of B-sides and also a new song - Nothing's Gonna Stop Us, aka the first single off of their upcoming all-new album. They tore the house down with songs like Growing On Me, the gloriously profane Get Your Hands Off of My Woman, Hazel Eyes, Givin' Up, Love Is Only a Feeling, and one of my favorites, second album title-track One Way Ticket. Hawkins did a soulful, acoustic version of ballad Holding My Own. He also trotted out a Radiohead cover, Street Spirit. After several costume changes (including a leopard-print unitard and a leather-pants / cowboy hat ensemble), Hawkins closed out the regular set with I Believe In a Thing Called Love, which had the crowd going bananas, jumping up and down and singing every lyric in unison.

Hawkins was in top form - he reached his trademark high notes with ease, and was energetic and just plain exuberant to be up on stage. The whole band seemed on-point, even despite a couple of tech issues with the sound system. But mostly, The Darkness seemed like they hadn't missed a beat.

For an encore, the band jammed to the instrumental tune Bareback, and then finished with an epic, extended edition of Love on the Rocks With No Ice, during which Hawkins, on the shoulders of a security guy, navigated through the crowd as the band wailed. It was a triumphant moment for a band and a frontman that could very easily have slid into obscurity after a breakup and numerous personal issues. But here they were, very close to the top of the world, rocking a sold-out venue in front of thousands of rabid fans.

Between The Darkness and Foxy Shazam, it was a night of true rock n' roll glory. Even Eric Nally of Foxy remarked that he'd heard the rumors of rock n' roll's death, but didn't believe 'em. And how could you, on a night like this one? It felt like the spirits of the legends - the spirit of Queen, Bowie, The Ramones, and more - was alive and well at the House of Blues.

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