PLACEBO. The Rivermead, Reading. 13.10.17

Tonight is a celebration. Placebo, perhaps Britpop’s most awkward participants, have made it to 20 years a band. And as the lights go down and the crowd welcome them to the stage, it becomes clear how they’ve done it. ‘Pure Morning’ is huge (Sure, three pieces are neat but Placebo haven’t worked that way live for a while and the extra texture and volume provided by an army of other players tonight really hits the mark), ‘Special Needs’ is layered and lush, and ‘I Know’ a slinky, sexy treat. And these songs have struck chords, over and over and over again, with people. You can tell because they’re smiling and dancing and screaming back every word. Even newer songs, ‘Jesus’ Son’ and the saccharine but unstoppably catchy ‘Too Many Friends’, draw adoration.

About halfway through the set though, it becomes clear that not everybody is having a good time. Something is wrong with Brian Molko. Instead of focussing the energy in front of him, he bats it away, ignores it even. After an early interaction about living in the moment and not watching the show through a phone, the frontman goes silent. Apart, that is, from mumbling through ‘A Song to Say Goodbye’ and ‘The Bitter End’.

Early on it seems like he might be experimenting with the tracks, trying out a dark and dreamy, Bowie-esque lounge act, but then ‘Nancy Boy’ gets the same treatment. Molko ignores the high notes and dynamism of the song and looks like he’s reading the lyrics to a wall. Maybe that’s the problem- it must be difficult to muster enthusiasm while looking out at the cow-shed confines of the Rivermead- but whether it’s through disappointment, boredom, or illness, it sucks the life out of the room.

Vocals aside, ‘Nancy Boy’ is fantastic. Over the years it has turned from a spiky punk rock rager into a titanic, anthemic monster. And closer ‘Infra-Red’ is even bigger, ending in a metallic wall of noise that builds even as the band disappear.

Tonight was supposed to be a celebration. And while plenty of Reading residents were ready to rejoice, Placebo only came some way through on their part of the deal. Here’s hoping their next anniversary feels more meaningful.

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