When I heard Placebo were coming to town on their 20th anniversary world tour I knew I had to go. I remembered them bursting onto my MTV2 screen in the mid 90s with their striking style and sound. Admittedly there was nothing completely new about what they were doing: Brian Molko's eye makeup and nail varnish set him somewhere between glam and goth, but it was nothing revolutionary. I spent a lot of my late teens in guy-liner! Their alternative rock sound had a jagged razor-sharp edge to it but, again, sitting somewhere between Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, it didn't seem to be breaking much new ground. What they did have, at that crucial time, were a number of great songs: anthems for alienated, disaffected youth that resonated lyrically and visually with a mass of folks who identified as outsiders.
I was a bit of a fence-sitter admittedly, I never went as far as buying a Placebo album for my burgeoning CD collection. Brian Molko's nasal vocal, instantly recognisable, was one thing I could never make my mind up about. At times I'd see it as a melodic snarl that ably carried its vital message, at others it just seemed to grate: but thankfully not tonight. Like many great bands of that time I completely lost touch with what they were up to after two fine albums, so I was intrigued to find out what they'd been doing since.
As an aperitif support band Minor Victories barely touched the sides. The Brighton Centre is such a huge space that any act who graces its stage becomes dwarfed by it without the assistance of lights and projections to hype the show. I was not actually aware of this supergroup, combining the vocals of Rachel Goswell from Slowdive with guitars from Stuart Braithwaite (Mogwai) and Justin Lockey (Editors). With such a celebrated cast I expect they’re worth another listen but tonight, ahead of Placebo’s hotly anticipated performance, they didn’t really sink in.
Placebo began the show with what struck me as being a couple of odd choices: as a tribute to the late great Leonard Cohen they played his song ‘Who By Fire?’ through the PA and projected photographs of him on the screen. This was followed by rolling the music video for ‘Every You And Every Me’, the third single from their second album and one of their most enduring songs. I couldn’t see why they would leave these two to the screens rather than perform them – maybe Molko is sick of singing that song and maybe, on this endless world tour, the band have been unable to put together an adequate live tribute to Cohen. Their show is slick and carefully orchestrated, so throwing in new ideas probably involves a fair bit of rehearsal and stage management.
When the band finally strode on to the stage they had to check which day of the week it was. “On tour life goes too fast and too slow at the same time,” said Brian, before reminding us all that this was their birthday party. It was quite sweet, in fact. Brian Molko is a charming frontman and, in spite of the barrage of sound and light he presides over, is always able to make things feel personal; as though he is speaking directly to you and you are in on any joke he’s going to make. It’s quite a skill and few have it to such a degree. He was also able to take things very quickly from the general and celebratory to making somewhat poetic and enigmatic statements, shifting from “happy birthday to me” to “life is impermanent and the only contstant is change” in a heartbeat.
The band opened with ‘Pure Morning’, the big single from that second album, and to my ears it lacked a little menace. The recording had a sense of vertigo, ably captured in the video, that made you feel like something drastic could happen at any second. As the opening salvo of an epic set it seemed weirdly sedate: precise but lacking edge. That was where the disappointments ended and the show really started to take off. ‘Loud Like Love’ the title track from their latest album soared and skyrocketed and set them off with confidence on an extensive tour of their back catalogue which contained more tracks that I was unaware of than singles I remembered from their heydey. The band are no longer a three-piece, expanded to a six member touring line-up they’re able to conjure up a lot of textures. Original bass-player Stefan Olsdal is still in the fold, playing a number of instruments and sharing the spotlight with Molko while the rest of the band start the show hidden in the shadows. It’s a barrier that gets broken down throughout as the other players are coaxed into the limelight from time to time by whispers in the ear or guitar-neck salutes from Molko and Olsdal. Their newest member, drummer Matt Lunn, makes his presence felt from the outset regardless of shadow: he’s a real beast on the kit, keeping the band’s pulse beating powerfully.
Other highlights included ‘Without You I’m Nothing’, title track from their second album and a song which David Bowie contributed vocals to, he appears on the screens behind the band throughout the song. This felt heartfelt and appropriate, the lyrics alone sounding as though they were written in tribute rather than the mutual admiration that spawned them in 1999. Bowie took an interest in Placebo, as he often did with acts that resonated with him, and you can see why this band fit the bill tonight. It’s the most impressive light and video show I’ve seen in this venue, although I do overhear some detractors saying it distracted from the music as we’re all shuffling out at the end of the night. Although it was a largely unfamiliar set-list the quality seldom dipped and things stepped up a gear when, two thirds of the way through the show Molko let us know the moody and intense songs were done with. Admittedly this just meant they gave way to faster, moodier and even more intense songs, but Placebo are one of those bands who do one, clearly defined thing, consistently well.
The encores brought ‘Nancy Boy’, which was the track I was really waiting for. Heralded in by Olsdal holding a rainbow flag painted Gibson Firebird bass up to a spotlight, drawing huge cheers from a crowd who were pleased to be addressed as boys, girls and everything in between. It sounded gigantic, vital and connected: our largest venue heaving in the stalls, hundreds of iPhones held aloft to capture a great moment.