The Libertines | Rock review

Forum, London

Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again" drifts across the audience at the Forum and photos of the Libertines in their heyday – laughing, hugging, playful and handsome – flick across the screens at the sides of the stage. A red curtain rises and the artwork from first album Up the Bracket fills the backdrop. But before the crowd drowns in nostalgia, the Libertines launch into the aggressive thrash thud of "Horrorshow" and the band's first proper gig since 2004 is off to a tighter, sharper and earlier start than pretty much any show they've done before.

The relief in the crowd is almost palpable. Everyone here has queued in torrential rain to get in and the room is drenched and steamy. The guy next to me paid £200 for his ticket. Everyone really wants this night to work and, until now, no one was sure it would. No wonder the audience responds with unfettered exuberance. Rehearsals for the four forthcoming gigs, including turns at the Reading and Leeds festivals, have been described as fraught by vocalist Carl Barât, a "rollercoaster" by drummer Gary Powell and "a real challenge" by bassist John Hassall.

Pete Doherty has been ominously silent on the matter, though this is hardly a surprise. Since they first strutted into the public's attention with debut single "What a Waster" in 2002, the band members' fractious relationship and their lifestyle – a heady mix of drugs, parties, prison, spontaneous gigs, furious rows, tearful reunions and Romantic poetry – were as much a part of their appeal as their clever lyrics and raucous music.

When they were on stage, you never knew if Doherty and Barât were going to hit each other or kiss at the microphone they so often shared. The drama was great if you were in the crowd, but off stage it tore the band apart. While the friendship between the two frontmen declined, Doherty's problem with crack and heroin grew, and when the band finally split in 2004, he'd barely played with them for a year.

Once my relief subsides, though, it's replaced by a sense of vague bafflement. At first, it's hard to explain – the musicianship on songs such as "Last Post on the Bugle" and "Boys in the Band" is impeccable; Barât still has his boyish looks and Doherty looks well, but when Powell throws his T-shirt into the crowd just before they launch into "What Katie Did", the cheers dwarf all those that have greeted the songs and I realise what is missing. While the band are treating their back catalogue with the respect it deserves, playing with a verve and professionalism that they've seldom shown before, they're slightly adrift from each other and the audience. No one on stage says anything to the crowd or to each other, so when there's the slightest acknowledgment – Doherty raising his glass or Barât chucking his pick to the fans – the sign that we're all here together experiencing something that, for these hardcore fans, is a bit of history – it sends the crowd into minor hysterics.

This slight disconnect can't diminish the power of the band's finest songs. When Barât and Doherty stare into each other's eyes during "Can't Stand Me Now" or cuddle up to the microphone in that homoerotic way that used to send their fans wild for "What Became of the Likely Lads", their old chemistry flickers into view. It's also a real nostalgia trip to hear more obscure tracks such as "Radio America" and "Tell the King".

Six years isn't long, but now pop, rap and folk are filling the chart positions that used to be dominated by guitar bands, this music sounds as if it's from another time. And it is – pre-Lady Gaga, pre-Mumford & Sons, pre-Tinchy Stryder. Even the audience is different. The Libertines almost singlehandedly popularised the skinny jeans and suit jackets that dominated male fashion early in this decade and at gigs in their heyday the crowds aped the band's style so slavishly it was hard to tell who was who if Doherty or Barât stagedived. Many of the men at the Forum look more like bad photocopies of Kasabian.

But the band's final three songs – "Up the Bracket", "What a Waster" and "I Get Along" – clatter out in energetic triumph. The audience is word-perfect and fills the room with the sort of vast wave of sound you only normally hear at football matches. But the biggest, floor-shaking, eardrum-buzzing roar of applause of the night? That comes for the group hug at the end of the set, when Barât awkwardly grabs Doherty and Hassall and Powell uncertainly join in. It was a moment that completed the evening for the fans. I hope it felt the same way for the Libertines.


Alice Fisher

The GuardianTramp

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