Words by John Noblet
The name on the ticket says “Babyshambles” but really what that means is “Pete Doherty and some other guys”, and no one’s particularly bothered who those other guys are.
It’s a long time since Doherty’s antics were regularly landing him in the tabloids – remember when he seemed more famous for the scandal circus revolving around him and Kate Moss than for his music? And it’s longer still since his first band The Libertines exploded out of nowhere to become what seemed like the biggest band in the country.
Despite this, there’s still a healthy (though not capacity) crowd here to see him and his band on a cold and damp Monday night at the O2 Academy. I just catch the last few songs from Babyshamble’s Birmingham support, Intensified.
They’re eight piece traditional ska/rocksteady band; who, whilst unlikely to change the world any time soon, do a lovely job of warming up the crowd – getting a few hips gently swinging, and not coming across as some pointless bunch of chancers who simply bought their way onto the tour, as is so often the case with these types of events (it’s common practice in the music industry for smaller bands to buy their way onto bigger bands’ tours – known as a “buy on”).
Babyshambles come on stage at about nine thirty, and on first glance Doherty seems fit for purpose as he strides onto the stage wearing a black & white stripy jumper and the same haircut he’s had since the dawn of time.
However, the actions that follow seem to suggest otherwise. He faffs around with various items on his guitar amp. He dons one of his trademark hats, which oddly warrants a cheer. He picks up a bunch of flowers and grins daftly at the crowd. Then he throws a few petals in the air, and then some more, takes off the hat, and just when I’m beginning to wonder if he’ll play any music at all, him and the band burst into the first song.
Babyshamles’ opener, “Delivery”, crashes along as it should; the band energetic and full, noisy and exuberant in all the right places. Doherty seems to hit all the right vocal cues and even plays a few notes of delightfully ham fisted-but-appropriate lead guitar. The second song rolls in without any fanfare or announcement, and again, sonically everything sounds more or less as it should, but I become aware that something isn’t quite right. And I realise that what’s not quite right is our good friend Pete.
He unfortunately has the air of a man who is too used to being applauded whatever he does, so isn’t trying that hard any more. He is quite possibly the most wasted man in the building, and seems to be at the point of intoxication where one thinks actions like wearing a traffic cone as a hat are witty and erudite.
Admittedly, this does lead to some amusing stage antics, such as throwing his guitar through the air to his roadie, playing the drums with his microphone and (OMG) smoking inside?!?
Although his attempt at playing the trombone is a bit too slapstick for my liking. And rather than Doherty leading his band, it seems like the band are holding him up like two mates walking a paralytic friend home after a particularly heavy session at the student disco. There’s lots of applause between songs, and a portion of the crowd look like they are having a great time; however, I think we all know in our hearts that the performance could be better, maybe a lot better.
That’s not to say there aren’t highlights, which seem to mostly come in the form of older songs such as “Killamangiro”, which sets the moshpit off marvelously, though I’m pretty sure Doherty mangles the end with an ill judged segue into a verse or two of “There She Goes”.
“Time for Heroes”, the only Libertines’ song in the set, also proves to be an evergreen classic sending huge chunks of the audience into instant euphoria. And about two thirds of the way through the set, Doherty seems to start singing with something like true conviction; which is a shame because, for me, it’s too late. There’s been too much mucking about between songs – the man spent so much time bent double over one of the amps at the back of the stage, with his arse to the crowd, that I can only assume that he was snorting lines back there. And I can’t be bothered to cheer the third or fourth time he downs some booze whilst the audience watches.
Many of the tracks just seem too similar to each other to tell apart, and the lack of song introductions meant that I’m now scrabbling about on the internet trying to work out which ones they played (the between song banter was also minimal, mostly consisting of Doherty pretending he was playing the Custard Factory and searching for a girl from Telford named Francesca).
For a finale, Doherty decides it would be a good idea to positively crucify what was previously quite a good song, “Albion”. His voice sounds the worst it’s sounded all night, and the ‘hoedown’ section sounds terrible, despite the addition of a lovely looking lady playing violin in a floppy hat, which Doherty charmingly decides to wear in the manner of drunks throughout the known universe.
However, the encore does provide some genuine delight. The band leave the stage and the house lights come up after a couple of minutes, and for a few moments it looks like the band aren’t going to come back on, the crowd starting to get angry. Babyshambles eventually emerge for a blistering version of “Fuck Forever”.
The crowd go mad, Doherty seems to have a bit more wind in his sails; and to add to the amusement, some bright spark in the middle of the crowd sets off a flare.
Surrounded by smoke and confusion, bits of sound equipment flying off the stage, bodies bouncing around me – it seems like a fitting end to a Babyshambles gig, however unfortunately below par the rest of it was.
For more on Babyshambles, visit http://babyshambles.net/
For more gigs at the O2 Academy, visit http://www.o2academybirmingham.co.uk/
Pete, you’re a good man, but you’re out of shape. Your shambolic charisma and healthy, well known back catalogue mean you will always have a fanbase, though if you continue like this the crowds will be slightly smaller every time you tour. However, both you and I know that you’re capable of so much more.
I’m not saying you should knock the drink and drugs on the head completely (that would be cruel and unnecessary) just don’t do so much of that kind of thing before you play. I want to see you back here in a few years’ time with a set of songs that eclipses everything you’ve ever done and a live show so gobsmackingly good it actually wins you a few new fans.
Much love, Johnny x