“Our album went into the charts… at number 81”
Justin Hawkins is officially an underdog again.
And it suits him tonight. As he points out from the stage in endearingly heroic defiance, his band Hot Leg are even selling t-shirts on the merch stand emblazoned with ‘Man Rock’ on the front (their description for their brand of the devil’s music) and the number 81 on the back.
They’ve won me over already.
I was a big fan of Justin’s former band The Darkness. I still am. Some people seem to look at me in a slightly peculiar way when I say that but I’m unapologetic. It especially annoys me when people describe them as a ‘joke band.’ For me that suggests they didn’t really care about the quality of the music they made. But I think The Darkness tapped into something special about classic British rock. They had some excellent songs and I loved the guitar playing – it’s just a shame it ended too soon.
So now the Hawkins brothers are split between two bands – guitarist Dan Hawkins is in Stone Gods (who I’ve seen twice live now) and Justin fronts Hot Leg.
This is my first experience of Man Rock in the live setting.
I wasn’t sure who would turn up tonight – so many people seem to be dismissive of his former band, while Stone Gods seem to be winning round the people who didn’t like the ‘silly’ side of The Darkness or/with the vocals. The Fleece looks sold out tonight though, even on a rainy Monday, with obviously a fair share of curious people.
So you can assume from their recently released debut album Red Light Fever, Hot Leg take the fun side of The Darkness and run with it tonight – but the standard of musicians and songwriting in this band is no joke.
Headbands are clearly mandatory for Hot Leg members, along with eyeliner and a drum solo from Darby Todd at the end of the first song. But my attention is immediately on the guitars – and if you love guitar solos this was the gig for you. These boys can really play.
Launching into Ashamed and the super-catchy I’ve Met Jesus, Hot Leg are a more intense proposition in the live setting but can clearly do the complexities of the debut album justice – especially on the epic tale of Trojan Guitar. We already know Justin is an excellent lead player but it’s his foil Pete Rinaldi that steals the show – he’s clearly been given a license for extensive, frenzied fretboard action in the band.
Think a Bumblefoot and Buckethead-flavoured tapping banquet, with bluesy shred thrown in for good measure. But Pete does it all without even breaking a sweat. He’s really a joy to behold. There’s a brilliant camaraderie between him and Justin as they duel like it’s their last nigh on earth on Trojan Guitar and they even make Gay In The Eighties – a song I wasn’t keen on from the album – more palatable with some guitar heroics.
So big solos, glam image and stigma from the past: this is a band who are the antidote to self-conscious cool. But they simply don’t give a shit about it. They play with a commitment to the power of rock that’s enjoyable to witness.
For You Can’t Hurt Me Anymore, the sound mix suddenly improves; it’s as if the soundman has woken up and pressed the right button. But it’s also the song itself – a showcase for Hawkins’ strengths as a superlative pop rock songwriter. If the Darkness had made a third album there’s little doubt this would have featured on it. And the hooks sounds even stronger in the live setting. Ditto for Chicken, with its hilarious falsetto chorus – pulled off admirably by Justin and Pete.
Next up is what Hawkins calls the ‘Love Bubble’ section – three ballads back to back. It’s a bit of a stumbling block for crowd moral but the first of the trio, Kissing In The Wind is an excellent song with classic Aerosmithian dynamics. The other two – the album outtake Come Into My Arms and another unnamed song seem a little overkill back to back. A joke too far perhaps. Nevertheless there’s some guitar heroics from Pete and the mainman to savour.
Then things really step up a gear.
Justin invites a well-built, shirtless man from the crowd called Danny onto the stage to dance while they storm through the gloriously catchy and very Darkness-esque Whichever Way You Wanna Give It.
The crowd loves it and they loosen up considerably, so much the band invite another crowd member (who bizarrely has almost identical red, bouffant curly hair as the first) to shake his stuff onstage. The two of them dancing intensely on either side of the Fleece’s stage makes for a bizarre spectacle. Then Justin is carried on the shoulders of his tech for an extended solo in Cocktails (after introducing this current single’s chances of chart success with more endearing self-depreciation) and walks back across the bar in full shred mode. It’s just the kind of spectacle a Monday night gig crowd needs.
So it’s little surprise when they chant the band’s name for an encore of their theme song We Are Hot Leg (unfortunately not included on the album), which goes down a storm. Then, as is often the way for me with gigs in the city, I have to leave to catch the train home. So I miss the end, but I’m convinced by what I see of Mr Hawkins and his crew tonight. My faith in him is affirmed – he’s essentially the same frontman as he was in stadiums, the same vision for celebratory rock is still there. But for all Hot Leg’s solos and flash they are the definition of punk rock in other ways – they’re staying true to themselves in the face of adversity. It’s up to you whether you want to join in the fun.