The British punk band were the best they've been in New Orleans in years, maybe ever. How do we process that information?

dave vanian of the damned photo by steven hatley for my spilt milk
The Damned's Dave Vanian at the House of Blues, by Steven Hatley

Tuesday night, The Damned were all I could hope for. The British punk rock band’s 40th anniversary tour stopped at the House of Blues, and over the years I’ve seen them be drunker, more erratic, more triumphant, and more indulgent, but I don’t think I’ve seen them be more consistently powerful. Admittedly, it helped that the setlist was written almost exactly to my interests, passing on its elaborate ballads, gothic flourishes, and raw enthusiasm in favor of songs that merged punk energy with the pop sensibility The Damned developed after its high velocity early years. The anniversary dates from the release of the band’s and British punk’s debut album, Damned Damned Damned, but the band leaned more heavily on its third album, Machine Gun Etiquette, and those that followed. 

Admittedly, the band has had decades to perfect “Love Song,” “Plan 9, Channel 7,” “Ignite,” “I Just Can’t Be Happy Today” and the rest of the two-hour show since the most recent song recorded was the band’s cover of Love’s “Alone Again Or” from 1987. Still, the band hasn’t always been solid, which is part of what made them endearing over the years. If The Clash and The Sex Pistols were young rebels—the people we’d like to think we’d have been—The Damned were who we are—the slotheads more interested in getting loaded and getting laid, and if the system got smashed as collateral damage, whooo-hooo! The other punk bands were aspirational, but The Damned were the band we knew.

Earlier in the tour, Captain Sensible fell off a stage in Toronto and broke a rib. That forced the cancellation of a few gigs, and Tuesday as with other recent stops on the tour, he played while sitting on a toilet onstage. His injuries were only obvious when he hobbled gingerly on and off stage. Once seated, he remained a spirited guitarist and maybe a slightly more precise one. Dave Vanian is similarly a more resourceful singer than he was during the band’s heyday. He used to yelp at notes he could only occasionally reach, but now he hits them or Vegases them, dropping into a smooth, lounge singer baritone to swoop up or down to them. On some tours, he has seemed frail, but with an Elvis pompadour and a small mustache and beard he was a dashing front man. 

Since the current lineup has been together since 2004, The Damned are tight and clearly know their roles. The show belongs to Vanian and Sensible, though keyboard player and Sybill Trelawney look-alike Monty Oxymoron periodically felt a need to make his presence known through his spastic dancing. It served as a reminder of the band’s laddish roots that undercut the authority with which band laid into songs, including the garage soul “Stranger in the Town,” which they played without missing the horns on the recording. Drummer Pinch seemingly came to the show straight from Jazz Fest in Hawaiian shirt and shorts, and he may have been the only person in the room not wearing a predictably black and white color palate. Aside from barking at the stage crew when he didn’t see anybody working on Vanian’s struggling microphone late in the set, he kept to his business and left the spotlight to the two long-time members.

I can talk more about specifics of the show, including a verse and chorus of Captain Sensible’s single “Wot” and a version of “Neat Neat Neat” that stretched out to an unpunkly four minutes and included something suspiciously close to a jam. But that seems beside the point. The who-did-what of a show by a 40-year-old band seems unnecessary because little that happened on the stage Tuesday night hasn’t happened before for the band. What’s there to say about a 40-year-old band that hasn’t been said yet? Particularly a punk one? What does a teenaged fuck-you become when its knees start to go? 

The show doesn’t tell us much about The Damned. Broken rib aside, it shows us that the members are healthy, engaged and take the band seriously, but it doesn’t tell us much about where the band is musically. It’s last album of new material came in 2008 (So, Who’s Paranoid?) and before that, 2001 (Grave Disorder). The Damned have struck a deal to release a new album of new material, but its Spotify page is clotted with live albums and greatest hits reissues—souvenirs for the merch table, really—all of which draw from the band’s early years. By now, The Damned’s narrative and art is settled, unlike contemporary artists whose music potentially shapes what comes next, and whose personal story arcs remain unclear. Seeing legacy bands like The Damned and X—whose 40th anniversary tour stops at One Eyed Jacks Thursday—is like watching The Wire or Parks and Recreation now. The shows are still good, but the conversation is over. 

Unlike generations before us, we have aging rock bands and aging punks as part of our musical landscape. In Desert Trip last year, we had a festival for musicians who defined youth culture before they outgrew it. While the rest of us acquired marketable skills in preparation for the eventual adult world, musicians worked on their music. Many don’t have contingency plans, so it’s not like they’re overwhelmed by alternative career paths. And unlike rock musicians in their 50s and 60s decades ago, The Damned, X, and many other older bands still have audiences. Parents used to give up their teenage things for their families and futures, but part of the culture shift that came with the late ‘60s is the embrace of rock as art that continues to add value to your life and not some trivial distraction you should outgrow. 

At punk shows, that often and awkwardly translates to people trying to relive their 20s, particularly their wardrobes and their drinking habits, neither to positive ends. At The Damned, I saw more people than usual led out staggeringly blitzed, and a few couples for whom the night got boozy and contentious. The audience wasn’t exclusively graying, and when a mosh pit—not a British punk thing, people!—formed near the end of the set for “New Rose” and “Neat Neat Neat,” there were young men diving in for their first slam along with guys in it for their last.

Fortunately, The Damned show didn’t require us to mentally compensate for age-related deficiencies. There were no That was really good considering … moments, and as one friend said with a little surprise, “That was a real show.” Still, the concert did require us to think about it in conjunction with other Damned shows, other punk shows, other old punk shows, and those by other, ummm, “experienced” bands. The show exists outside of the current music conversation, though, and I suspect for many of The band’s fans, that’s a good thing. Decisions The Damned make on this tour won’t affect the next few years of music the way choices made by Future or The XX or Lil Uzi Vert might on their tours, nor was there really much for the show to add to The Damned story, which by now is pretty much set in stone. There were fun details like Sensible stopping between songs to fish a beer out of the tank of the toilet he sat on, but the band and its love of drink goes back to its earliest days—no news there. Nor are we trying to get a handle on the band’s music since The Damned charted its world before the ‘80s crashed into grunge and hip-hop. When we see a band that’s still exploring its musical world, each show is a snapshot of where it is now. What influences are more evident now? What in the sound has it shed? What does it stress now? I’m always skeptical of overlaying a “growth” narrative on a band, but when we see a band that is still in process, we’re tracking the changes and their meaning as well as the fierceness with which the band clings to values that we share.

Finally, if you’re part of the audience that has been with The Damned, X, and hell, New Kids on the Block (who play The Smoothie King Center Friday), you’ve changed. You’re not just older, but your identity has formed. Our bands are one of the ways we draw the line between us and the people we don’t want to be, and while our identities are in process, we police the lines defined by those bands pretty militantly. I used to be an electric guitar absolutist because The Ramones and The Dictators made sense to me, whereas synthesizers played by people not named Eno didn’t. Acoustic guitars connoted California vineyard country rock to me, and I wanted beer and b-movie references, not chablis and feelings. I liked being a guy who took that kind of stand, but that identity gained nuance and became more three-dimensional as I found the limits of the all-guitar world and internalized music, art and books that appealed to me that lay outside a post-Velvet Underground world. 

The Damned are no longer the sort of band around which identities and tribes form, and most of the audience at the show figured out who they are and who is in their tribe years ago. In that sense, the stakes are lower at the show. They’re not affecting the discourse on popular music, but that doesn’t diminish the show’s experience or the intensity of the fans and their reaction Tuesday. After one song, Sensible said, “Not bad for a couple of old geezers,” then after a pause, “I mean you!”