Placebo at the iTunes Festival

September 27, 2014

Written by Peter Wise.

Placebo are six-strong on the Camden Roundhouse stage, and they’re sounding astonishing. We’ve had great expectations of arguably the biggest cult draw of the month-long iTunes Festival, and for the most part we’re not disappointed.

To hear this band’s terrific roster of hits in sequence is to realise that they truly are one of the most original and influential amongst the bigger British rock acts of the past twenty years. The sensational ‘One of a Kind’ is spine-chilling with its creeping intro riff and symphonic guitars. ‘The Bitter End’, with its tantalisingly discordant lead guitar stabs and anthemic chorus, is a true alt-rock classic, whilst ‘Special K’ is such an irresistible, thumping hit that it inspires a few members of the typically mild-mannered iTunes Festival crowd to instigate the tamest circle pit in the history of popular music.

It’s fantastic to experience Placebo’s grand musical ideas realised in The Roundhouse’s hyper-real production values. The sound is formidably powerful yet rich in detail, with nuanced guitar lines, the wheeling of electric violin and the charismatic quiver of Brian Molko’s voice all finding their way crisply through the noise. Meanwhile, near-blinding strobes and flashing strip lights transform the domed auditorium into some dazzling futurescape. Imagine the art direction of Tron transmuted onto the interior of a Grade II listed building…

This level of immaculacy is at once a great achievement and a slight drawback. Placebo’s three permanent members are joined tonight by three session musicians. These touring members offer performances that are enjoyable in their own right, but their combined presence does seem to dilute the sense of intimacy between the fans who know the songs like old friends and the artists who actually wrote them. A leaner Placebo line-up with each member carrying more responsibility for the band’s sound might possess that slight edge that’s sometimes lacking here.
On all other accounts it’s an excellent show. The crowd responds rapturously when Molko steps forward for a more exposed moment during the pared down opening verse of ‘Meds’.

Incidentally, the elfin singer gives an outstanding, subtly powerful vocal performance throughout. The highlight of the set comes with the final song, late-noughties classic ‘Infra-Red’. The band seem looser and sound incredible, and the audience responds in kind. All of a sudden, you can smell the musty, sweaty scent of all great rock concerts. At times tonight, we were at one.

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