Thursday is always a weird night for a gig – being that it’s at the end of the working week’s school nights, you never know who you’re going to see coming through the door. So whenever I know I’m catching a Thursday night show, I always expect the unexpected. Still, tonight’s crowd was kind of surprising. Madness are a band with a massive history under their belt, and I’ve seen a lot of shows from bands with similar years behind them; you tend to see people from all ages coming out to celebrate the chance to stand in the presence of one of the greats. But despite the massive influence the band has had on modern music today, and despite their absolute swag of top-ten hits that still play on Australian radio, tonight what I witnessed was a Festival Hall packed to the rafters with nothing but 40-60 year olds as far as the eye could see. Not one person in attendance, myself included, could in any way be considered a ‘youth’. And it was absolutely glorious.
First up tonight was festival darlings Caravana Sun – a band making a pretty serious name for themselves on the Australian touring circuit with their signature blend of ska, folk and power-pop – and tonight, they had their work cut out for them. In their natural habitat of a summer festival, the boys from Caravana Sun can tell immediately how they’re being received by the, ahem, young adults in attendance (who are happy to whoop and holler at any crowd-goading clown, regardless of ability). With the polished show that they deliver, they always get a super strong response in that environment, and deservedly so – they’re always tight as a nut and hammer out one high-energy sing-along after another until they have the crowd eating out of their hands. But in a sea of actual adults with young adults of their own (not to mention mortgages), it was hard for Caravana Sun to gauge the kind of response they were receiving. It’s not that the crowd weren’t interested, they were just a little rusty. It was only 7 o’clock; they needed a minute to lubricate their joints a little. Undeterred, the guys poured their all into a stellar show, and though the crowd didn’t seem to be moving so much, they roared with applause after each song and never left the band hanging on a singalong moment right to the very end.
In an instant, the crowd almost doubled in size. For Caravana Sun, the room was fairly packed, so much so that I figured that this must be it for the evening. When they finished up, I blinked, turned around and suddenly the place was packed to the rafters – literally, every seat in the venue was taken, and people were still pouring in from all angles (still not a youth in sight). Then every light in the venue fell, and from the backdrop, one word shone out into the darkness: MADNESS. The crowd roared like a lion. Spotlights danced around the venue, torchlights flickered across the stage. Then shadows started to trickle out into the light: Bedders first, then Chrissy Boy, Woody Woodgate, Barzo, Lee Jay Thompson, and finally, the man of the hour, our Master of Ceremonies, Suggs himself looking a little dustier in his older age but still sharp as a tack. It’s astounding to think that these men have been playing together for so damn long, and the crowd showed their full respect and adoration to these living legends with deafening applause. In a move one could only describe as ballsy, they opened the show with the title track to their brand new album – a move you wouldn’t expect even the Stones to pull – and it slayed. ‘You Can’t Touch Us Now’ sounds exactly like you want Madness to sound, and besides, the crowd have been aching for this moment all night long and they show their appreciation by showering the band in adoration. Without warning, the opening horn strikes from ‘Embarrassment’ rattled through our collective chest, and suddenly a room full of adults felt like a classroom that the teacher left unsupervised for too long; what were stiff joints only moments ago were suddenly flailing with gleeful and reckless abandon, the crowd surging and howling with delight. They truly looked like children set loose. It was a beautiful sight to behold.
Suggs commanded the stage like the consummate professional he is, working the crowd like a true ringmaster and delivering some seriously world-class banter in between numbers. He gave a heartfelt tribute to the band’s patron saint, the recently passed godfather of Ska Prince Buster, before dropping into their 1979 single The Prince and taking these misty eyed, middle-aged lovers right back to their checker-suspendered two-tone youths. You could almost taste the scent of well-loved Dr. Martens in the air. From there, the band plowed through a 20 song set with ease, not one note out of place for the entire evening. They traded back and forth between bonafide classics and cuts from their late 2016 release You Can’t Touch Us Now, and while most bands at this point in their career know better than to think their audience wants a set with that many new tracks, the fact of the matter is that Madness’ new material is actually good. It’s such a rarity that it took me by surprise, but I was honestly enjoying the new tracks just as much as the classics (well, almost). The crowd squealed with delight when ‘Wings of a Dove’ hit, the band following up with new number ‘Herbert’ without letting the energy drop one bit. Likewise, they followed that with the crowd-pleaser ‘Cardiac Arrest‘ before delivering their heartfelt tribute to the late Amy Winehouse, the beautiful spoken-word ballad ‘Blackbird’, and nobody seemed the least bit phased that they weren’t getting their favourite Madness hit instead.
The band must have appreciated this response as much as I did, as they rewarded us in the last half of the set by knocking out classic after classic after absolute undeniable classic. The rafters rattled to that monstrous piano riff in ‘Grey Day’; a mini-skank pit of drunk dads opened up to ‘One Step Beyond’. Once they had us in the palm of their hands, the life of the show, saxophonist Lee Jay Thompson blasted out that one-two punch intro to ‘House of Fun‘ and the crowd erupted like giddy kids at Christmas. They doubled up with the schoolboy anthem ‘Baggy Trousers’, chased that with the sublime ‘Our House’, and just when you think you’re as close to heaven as you can get, you feel the warm embrace of the closer ‘It Must Be Love’ wrap its soothing arms around you and cradle you back down to Earth. Who in the world could want for anything more?
As it turns out, a crowd of fifty-year-olds in Festival Hall on a balmy Thursday night could definitely want for more. I personally could have sat down on the spot at this point and not ever moved again, and I would not have been the least bit upset. But this crowd was here for the duration, and they absolutely howled for an encore. And so they got what they wished for. The band took the stage one more time, first nailing into new number ‘Mr. Apples’ before dropping a combination that was sure to wear the crowd down; the Prince Buster classic ‘Madness’, and a 7-minute version of the high-pitch fever-nightmare that is ‘Night Boat to Cairo’. I danced so hard I thought my joints were going to turn to dust. By the time that manic horn outro rang out into the night, we all poured out into the street steaming and reeking and grinning like madmen, not one face looking disappointed. What was there to be disappointed about? We just got to see everything we came for, and more. Besides, how can you look disappointed when you’re wearing a Fez?*
*NOTE: They were selling Fez’ as merch, shop below for all your Madness Fez needs: