LIVE: Alkaline Trio @ Islington Academy [29/08/2013]

By Chris Marshman

photo by Graham Berry

Ten years ago the world was a different place. No one had heard of Facebook, MySpace reigned supreme and we certainly couldn’t have envisioned ourselves killing time at work by reading a million variations on an article entitled ‘25 signs that you’re really old and everything in your youth is lost’ on a website with a ridiculous name. Oh, and people still went to punk rock shows and weren’t ashamed to admit it.

In 2003, Chicago punks Alkaline Trio, hot off the release of ‘Good Mourning’ – the follow-up to their hugely popular breakthrough record ‘From Here to Infirmary’ – toured the UK and were lucky enough to be the first ever band to headline a brand new venue in London called the Islington Academy. It seems fitting then, ten years on, the band were invited back to play at its ten year anniversary celebration.

Unlike some of their contemporaries, Alkaline Trio have aged comparatively well, with the wrinkle-defying singer/guitarist Matt Skiba, now 37, looking as fresh-faced on stage tonight as he did in our first glimpses of him that ‘Stupid Kid’ video all those years ago. Bassist and co-vocalist Dan Adriano, the beefier of the two, now entering the latter half of his thirties, was bald way back when, so it’s not as if receding hairlines are praying heavy on his mind either.

The Trio have always indulged in the darker side of three chord pop punk but shunned the gothic pantomime of the likes of AFI and My Chemical Romance, and tonight’s theatrics are limited to a few red-cased candles burning as the band come on with old favourite ‘Private Eye’. Similarly, unlike a certain (former) pop punk three piece of a similar age, you won’t see Broadway musicals or triple concept albums from these guys. It didn’t break, so they certainly were never going to try and fix it – and 15 years’ worth of high beers and hearts on sleeves is what it’s all about tonight.

Skiba’s onstage persona is one of effortless cool and arrogant posing. One minute he’s belting out raspy and angst-filled laments and the next he’s stood front and centre in classic power stance furiously strumming with sinister grin as Adriano takes on lead vocals. The bassist provides the antithesis of Skiba’s fury, with his more dulcet tones taking on the softer songs such as ‘Blue Carolina’ and his brauny frame sitting at odds with his bandmate’s angular features.

The set spans the Trio’s career, from ‘‘97’ – “the first song we ever wrote together” – to several numbers from this year’s ‘My Shame is True,’ the band’s eighth studio album, including lead single ‘I Wanna Be A Warhol,’ which Skiba dedicates to Resident Evil actress Milla Jovovich – apparently “the only woman’s [he’s] ever really loved”. Old tracks go down a storm and the newer stuff is a welcome return to the furious, urgent, three minute, goth-influenced rock n roll that helped the Trio make their name in the first place.

It’s a shame that the sound in the venue is far from perfect (you’d have thought ten years would be enough to sort out acoustics), but Alkaline Trio’s songs were on the whole written to be played loud, fast and angry – and sang back with equal ferocity – regardless of noise quality, and in that, all is delivered. Skiba is no master musician, but what he lacks in guitar skills he makes up for in his masterfully sinister lyrics and posturing performance. You kind of wonder if Skiba is what Blink’s Tom DeLonge was aiming for when he tried to do the whole serious, tortured, pop punk frontman transformation. Completing the trio, drummer Derek Grant provides stellar backing with his powerful beats and solid backing vocals.

With such a massive back catalogue and relatively limited mainstream exposure, it’s always going to be difficult for a band such as Alkaline Trio to pick a strong set list – there are no huge singles but there are tonnes of fan favourites, which can vary wildly dependant on generation. For me, tonight’s set lacked a few classics, glaringly ‘Stupid Kid,’ but there’s also no ‘She Took Him to the Lake,’ ‘Bleeder’ or ‘Hell Yes’ either. Some of the stronger new tracks are absent too, including ‘My Shame is True’ opener ‘She Lied to the FBI’.

One highlight, however, comes in the form of ‘Mercy Me’ from 2006’s ‘Crimson’. Dedicated to their recently-passed friend Justin, it provides some poppier yet heartfelt respite from a set of largely rawer and more frenetic songs.

This show is the final one in a string of European dates, including performances at Reading and Leeds. Towards the end of the set Skiba briefly breaks his demonic façade with a touch of sentimentality, proudly exclaiming “you can check this shit on YouTube, we’ve not said it before… this has been the best show of the whole tour”. It really is a different time – the first time they were here such a reference would have been greeted with a series of blank expressions, while now, people probably think ‘live’ music is what you call those sketchy videos you watch of your favourite bands that someone else filmed on a phone somewhere.

It’s a charm to see a band of Alkaline Trio’s generation still touring and actually putting out new, solid records, let alone selling out shows like tonight’s. It’s just a shame that the sound isn’t on their side and they seem to have somewhat missed the mark with the set list. An encore of ‘Radio’ comes close to redeeming it all, and an acapella shout-along of “I’ve got a big fat fucking bone to pick with you, my darling,” provides one of the only ‘wow’ moments of the night.

A strong effort that’s entertaining enough, but it’s far from spectacular from boys (ahem, men) that can, and have, done a hell of a lot better.