The Libertines have arrived at their first full UK arena tour by an impossibly circuitous route of addictions, arrests, breakups and the occasional inglorious, cash-oriented reformation. Even now, it’s not always smooth sailing: just last September, a month after Pete Doherty had completed a drug rehabilitation course in Thailand, the band were forced to pull out of a show at Camden’s Electric Ballroom after the frontman suffered an anxiety attack. Yet strange as it sounds, the Libertines are functioning more like a regular band these days than at any other point in their history. They release albums on a major label, promote them with tours that Doherty almost always turns up to, and somehow manage to avoid killing each other along the way. For this band, that’s a pretty remarkable state of affairs.
Much of it can be attributed to Anthems for Doomed Youth, a comeback album that really could have gone either way, given the emotional baggage and stalled solo careers of Doherty and his co-frontman Carl Barât. A number of songs from that record stand out tonight, particularly lead single Gunga Din, with its lurching, reggae-tinged guitar riff, and Belly of the Beast, a black-humoured ditty introduced by Doherty as “a little morality story about a lad called Pete ... He was a good lad, he just hung around with the wrong crowd.”
Best of all is opener Barbarians, the disorderly rallying-cry that also kicks off the record, whose beery chorus of “All I want is to scream out loud / And have it up with a mental crowd,” sets the tone for what follows: the Libertines dutifully do their bit, and a partisan Glaswegian audience reciprocates in kind.
As always, the focus is on the interplay between Doherty and Barât. However much their relationship may have evolved over the years, once they start trading the 12-year-old barbs of Can’t Stand Me Now or Music When the Lights Go Out, it always seems to revert back to that of Pete ’n’ Carl, and the bromance that launched a thousand slash fiction pieces. Every time they meet around the same mic-stand, it’s cause for jubilation. On the screens behind them, even the camera operators seem loth to cut away from their faces. So many of their songs are so pointedly addressed to each other (“We thought that they were brothers, then they half-murdered each other,” nudges Carl on the new album’s title track; “You’re the only lover I had who ever slept with a knife,” Pete winks back on You’re My Waterloo) that after a while, the theme can start to feel a little forced.
The second half of the set is a more straightforward tear through the greatest hits, like the evergreen Time for Heroes, the twitchy, splenetic What a Waster or the closing Don’t Look Back Into the Sun, on which they’re joined by two female fans sporting identical red military jackets (and who, for reasons unknown, have been bringing the band trays of drinks all night). It’s the closest thing you’ll see to a stage invasion tonight, but you do file out of the arena afterwards bathed in a warm fuzzy glow of nostalgia. There will be those who miss the intimacy and melodrama of the bad old days, or lament the sight of corporate hospitality lounges sullying the Arcadian dream-realm, but on the whole, you’d have to say the Libertines’ reunion has been a quixotic triumph, over themselves as much as anything else.
- At Arena, Manchester, 23 January. Tickets: 0161-950 5000. Then touring until 30 January.