Libertines review – a hymn to unity

Brixton Academy, London
We may be splitting from the EU, but at least Pete Doherty and Carl Barât have managed to stick together

Lit in nostalgic, incandescent bulb-yellow, belted and braced, the Libertines are singing about The Good Old Days. Invoking Boudicca, “daisy chains and schoolyard games”, twin singing guitarists Pete Doherty and Carl Barât slurp at the same microphone, their togetherness underscored by its notorious instability.

This is a charity gig for Unity Rocks, a new anti-racism organisation founded by Libertines drummer Gary Powell; proceeds go to Hope Not Hate; support acts include up-and-coming kindred spirit Rat Boy, rapper Doc Brown and ticket touts scandalously reselling at vastly increased prices.

It is pleasing to see the notion of unity physically reflected in this famously fissile outfit, with Barât dragging Doherty into sweaty hugs. As recently as last month, the Libertines’ set at Sweden’s Way Out West festival had to be postponed for a day due to a relapse into the band’s notorious unreliability.

But tonight, all seems well with the good ship Albion (a long-standing metaphor for the Libertines), playing this London venue for the first time since their landmark night here in 2004. Doherty has turned up. A string of huge arena shows earlier this year has made the Libertines tight and professional, two words never associated with the band in their first incarnation, dogged as they were by prodigious drug use and animosity. Off and on since 2010, however, the Libertines have been embarked on a reunion that crystallised in a Hyde Park gig (2014) and has produced a successful album, Anthems for Doomed Youth, last year. Its songs are a focus of tonight’s set, which overruns the curfew and excludes a handful of the band’s most anthemic oldies (No What a Waster, for one). Their backdrop consists of three giant strips of crumpled tinfoil, a sly nod, perhaps, to their bad old ways.

Anyone unfamiliar with the Libertines might believe that a band obsessed with a mythical, lost Albion, with a Britain of manual typewriters and Orwell and Cromwell might be a bit Brexity. After all, a powerful sense of nostalgia (those “good old days”) drives both camps. Libertines and Brexiters are partial to the notion of a unified group of people (call it a fanbase or a nation) standing for something lasting and true, for sucking on roll-ups in pubs, unimpeded by the tedious pitfalls of modernity (nasty white eco light bulbs, the smoking ban).

Tonight, the Libertines are introduced by Welsh poet Jack Jones, reading his own work To Be a Libertine. “Do you love Albion, this fine nation, hate boredom, fear and desperation?” it goes, riffing on the spiritual underdog qualities that move the band. It is not a stretch to say that a few Leavers might share its sense of beleagueredness.

Foiled again: the Libertines perform in front of their sparse backdrop.
Foiled again: the Libertines perform in front of their sparse backdrop. Photograph: Rex

One of the Libertines’ greatest assets, however, is that their vision of Albion is no Ukip backwater; the “good old days” never were. Albion always felt like more of an open city full of poets, reprobates, heroes and bromantics – Casablanca at the end of the war, say, or Paris in the 19th century. Hence Unity Rocks: a musical movement in the mould of 2 Tone or Rock Against Racism, to combat the embittered atmosphere unleashed in the wake of the Leave vote. On the day of the gig, the news breaks of a 10-year-old boy in Bristol apparently being the subject of a vicious racist attack.

There is a genuine physical link to 2 Tone as well: Gary Powell has been moonlighting in the Specials, the poster band for anti-racist unity in the 1980s. He has replaced John Bradbury, who died last December. Barât actually introduces him at the end of the night as “Gary Powell from the Specials!”; Powell is off on tour with them as you read this.

Neither Barât nor Doherty makes any rousing speeches tonight about the state of things. With the air of a rumpled librarian circa 1951, Doherty does muse on the word unity. “There are 17 different definitions in the dictionary,” he says. “One of them is a way you measure time.”

Near the end, Doherty picks Barât up and carries him around on his back while playing guitar; that guitar eventually ends up chucked into the crowd. There is a sustained roar for Powell, who makes a fist and yells: “Unity rocks!” while Doherty rubs his neck vigorously with a towel. It’s quite an old-school thing to do, mixing politics and pop, but then, the Libertines are that decidedly old-school sort of a band.

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Kitty Empire

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