Festival Hall was packed with exactly the sort of crowd you would expect to turn out for a Madness gig in Melbourne – the overall age bracket was decidedly +40, with the dress code consisting of flat tops, novelty hats and beer guts. People nodded to each other with an acknowledging grin as the PA delivered classic British tunes and the bar line snaked around corners and an excitement stood in the air.
Aided by a three piece horn section – which was lucky because Lee ‘Kix’ Thompson’s saxophone was criminally low in the mix – and a percussionist, the core six-piece band were locked in from the first note. The stage sound itself was full, despite the acoustic limitations of the room, and Suggs’ vocals were improbably youthful and sweet sounding, matching the recorded versions extremely closely.
While most of his bandmates, excepting the animated Thompson, dispensed with the ‘nutty boy’ theatrics in favour of concentrating on the performances, Suggs proved himself a charming and confident frontman, filling all of the banter and introductory spaces left vacant following the departure of second vocalist Chas Smash a few years ago.
In Australia Madness’ audience predominantly consists of fans from their glory days, and so the song selection barely wavered from the greatest hits, allowing for a few from the latest album, You Can’t Touch Us Now. The only real surprises were the amount of inclusions from the band’s late 80s downtempo pop era, such as Yesterday’s Men and Wings of the Dove. These songs were welcome variations from the more obvious crowd pleasers, but predictably dipped the energy in the room a touch, and thus were mostly relegated to the front half of the set.
Early highlights included the brilliant NW5, a latter day classic from 2009’s The Liberty Of Norton Folgate, which deserves to be regarded amongst their best songs. The balance of English melancholy and simple but memorable lyrics with a catchy heartfelt chorus is a great example of what has always given Madness its depth beyond the quirky façade.
On the other hand, Baggy Trousers and House of Fun also stood out as obvious fan favourites and were delivered with an appropriate amount of energy and humour. Hitting the home stretch of hits, the inevitable piano plonk of It Must Be Love had all of the couples in the room locking eyes and having a moment, while the band faithfully delivered the song for the 10 billionth time.
Overall Madness provided a classic set of well loved tunes without breaking a sweat. If it looked a little too easy, it’s because after so many years, and in front of such an adoring crowd, they had nothing to prove except that they could still play the hits in a reliable and tuneful manner. That they did it with aplomb, a small amount of cheeky, self acknowledging swagger, and sounded, on the whole, surprisingly youthful and energetic, was added value.
Image by Ian Laidlaw
Originally Published in Beat Magazine.