The Masonic Auditorium, San Francisco
October 3, 2023
Photos by Raymond Ahner
When The Darkness took the stage at The Masonic in San Francisco, they were greeted by rapturous applause. It was the first night of their world tour celebrating the twentieth anniversary of their debut album, Permission To Land, and they were about to treat the audience to a set comprised entirely of the ten songs on the album and all of the B-sides and miscellaneous songs from that era.
Following a lowering of a model of the spaceship from the cover of the Permission To Land album, the band took to the stage. Consisting of brothers Justin Hawkins (vocals, guitar) and Dan Hawkins (guitar), Frankie Poullain (bass), and Rufus Taylor (drums), the band opened the set with the rollicking instrumental “Bareback.” They really picked up steam though with the next song, “Black Shuck,” the opening song from their 2003 album. Justin ran around the stage singing, “Black shuck, that dog don’t give a fuck!,” at one point doing a headstand and clapping his legs together. By the end of the song, his shirt was nowhere to be found.
Something that I appreciated about the setlist was how it was set up. As would be expected, the band performed Permission To Land in its entirety, but whenever they would play a single from the album they would then follow it up with whatever its respective B-sides were before continuing on with playing the album. For instance, after playing “Love Is Only A Feeling,” they followed it up with “Planning Permission” and “Curse Of The Tollund Man.” Before playing the obscure latter song, Justin quipped, “If anyone here knows this next song, I will literally give you money out of my pocket.”
And some of the songs that they played truly are obscure, at least for North American audiences. Most of the singles from their first album were only ever released in the United Kingdom and had never been played outside of Europe. “Out Of My Hands,” one of the B-sides of the band’s biggest hit “I Believe In A Thing Called Love,” had never been played before, period, the band giving San Francisco the debut live performance of the song.
And speaking of their biggest hit, Justin said, “We usually play this one last, but because we’re doing the album in order, we’re playing it now.” The band launched into “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” before almost immediately stopping. “Listen,” Justin began saying to the audience, “I know that we’re all here to have a good time. But please, just for this song, put your phones away. I know you want to show your mates where you’re at and you’re seeing the band that did that song, but you know what? Fuck your mates. They should have come to the show. So please, no phones for this one. Just bounce around everyone.” He designated one person in the audience to film the song and post it on their respective Instagram page, and then for the next three-and-a-half minutes the entire audience bounced to one of the best and most memorable songs from the 2000s.
Following an extended instrumental intro of “Stuck In A Rut,” probably my favorite song by the band, Justin appeared onstage having swapped out his bright yellow pants for a zebra-print leotard. A couple of songs later, during “Love On The Rocks With No Ice,” he would sit atop the shoulders of a security guard and play a guitar solo as he was paraded around the venue. The band followed that with the final song from the album, “Holding My Own,” a song that hadn’t been played in a decade. Easily the most triumphant song on the album, it’s one that I’ve always been incredibly fond of, and it was a joy to see them play it.
Coming back onstage for the encore wearing matching pajamas, Dan took to the drums, Frankie to an acoustic guitar, and Rufus to the bass to play the B-side “I Love You 5 Times,” a tender love song. After that the band all returned to their usual instruments to close the show out with their holiday single “Christmas Time (Don’t Let The Bells End),” a song that had never been played in North America. “People will yell to me back home when I’m onstage to play ‘The Christmas Song’,” Justin said. “Well, that’s not the name of it. But because people call it that, that implies that it’s the only Christmas song that matters.” And after seeing them play a blistering performance of it live, that’s definitely an argument that I could make.
There’s a meme that made the rounds online a few months ago. The setup is that it’s 2003, and a kid is getting ready for school with MTV on in the background. Suddenly the out-of-this-world music video for “I Believe In A Thing Called Love” comes on, and the kid has no idea what they’re watching. But there’s an air of truth to it, at least for me: that was the exact circumstances under which I was first exposed to the band. Soon afterwards I went out and bought Permission To Land on CD, and it was my first exposure to anything remotely glam. The album primed me to discover and appreciate the likes of David Bowie, T. Rex, and the first handful of albums by Sparks, and seeing The Darkness perform such an important album in my listening journey felt like a full-circle moment that rarely happens. Justin Hawkins may believe in a thing called love, but I believe in The Darkness.
Opening the evening was the band The Comancheros. There’s a saying that if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say it. But I have to be honest with you all: the band’s performance is easily one of the most truly terrible things that I have ever seen. Consisting of about 50% performing the songs and 50% showboating, it felt like the band spent more time on their choreography than on their songwriting, every number about being from the South and drinking or shooting guns or owning the highways at night (whatever that means). The one true glimmer of hope during their set was when the singer said that they would cover a Thin Lizzy song, but of course it was “Cowboy Song.” If I were you, I would show up conveniently late to any shows that this band opens at.