Late last year, indie rock giants, The Vaccines, released their fifth record, the delectably poppy Back in Love City; a fusion of their signature, post-punk sound with splashes of pop and the Wild West – described by the band themselves as ‘frontier rock’. Following a string of intimate, release week shows, they embarked on a full UK tour in April 2022.
I got the chance to see them play the Portsmouth Guildhall – my second dose of the Vaccines – and to say they were incredible is too low an understatement. Backed by the supports of Aziya and Black Honey, the venue was already in a state of youthful disarray. Beer had been thrown, arms were in the air, people were moving in an unsteady rhythm to the ruckus and riffs of every song.
The support acts were pure testaments to the up-and-coming female movement in rock – an aspect of music that, tragically, is still sidelined. Aziya – sporting an evening gown and combat boots – wielded a six-string like it was a rifle, bringing down the house with selections of her own material, as well as a staggering live cover of Grimes’ ‘Oblivion’. Black Honey, meanwhile, celebrated their 2021 release, Written & Directed, with an iconic mix of Western rock and stomping pop. Both were among the best supports I’ve ever seen.
And then, the wavering notes of David Byrne sounded through the speakers, as the Vaccines themselves strode out to ‘Psycho Killer’ taking up their instruments, poised ready for war. They’re veterans of the live scene by now but show none of the weathering or battle fatigue. Frontman Justin Young still leapt about, prefacing songs with dedications, thanks and witticisms.
‘Wanderlust’, a track from Back in Love City – and one of the band’s heaviest to date – opened the set, proving a climactic introduction that had an immediate control over the crowds. ‘Help me build a great big concrete wall around my failings!’ screams Young, barely audible over the baying crowds who seem raised on the words of the Vaccines. For those doubting that the Vaccines can muster up that bite of old, ‘Wanderlust’ not only allays such fears, but shows that the band aren’t scared of cranking it up onstage. The heavy numbers aren’t going to sit gathering dust.
And as if to prove my point, the hungover guitar fuzz of ‘I Can’t Quit’ kicks in next; perhaps the highest point of 2018’s Combat Sports. ‘I Always Knew’, a classic from the halcyon days of the band, gallops into gear after, furthering the point that the band don’t ignore a single one of their albums (Well, except English Graffiti) – trying to condense a decade-long career into little over an hour.
‘We’re going to play something from the archives,’ says Justin cryptically, before offering another selection from Come of Age, the delightfully-deprecating ‘Teenage Icon’, and a personal favourite of mine. Then we’re back to the Morricone-esque intrigue of Love City, with ‘Alone Star’, a track that – I confess – took its time to grow on me. But as Young storms into the chorus, ‘I should have known/ You are not alone!’ the riff-borne infection is unstoppable.
‘Surfing in the Sky’, a relatively deep cut from Combat Sports pleases the longtime acolytes, before everything goes a little quiet. ‘If at some point we all succumb/ For goodness sake, let us be young’ is the death knell of immaturity, as ‘Wetsuit’ proves, once more, how timeless and poignant a track can be. ‘Post Break Up Sex’ rounds out the band’s debut numbers, building up the crowd for one of the Vaccines’ best live anthems.
‘Your Love Is My Favourite Band’ has more than a splash of the ‘80s about it, with keyboardist Timothy Lanham able to really let loose. Then we’re introduced to the rest of the band (that’s Freddie Cowan on guitar, Arni Arnason on bass and Yoann Intonti on drums) and ‘Disaster Girl’ – a song from the group’s latest material; an EP, Planet of the Youth. ‘Disaster Girl’ serves as a particularly thunderous piece, with singer Young once more reflecting on his misfortunate on the relationship front.
‘El Paso’, a fan favourite from Back in Love City, is one hell of a moment to capture live, and once more reminds me that the Vaccines aren’t just fit for some good old-fashioned, British punk rock. ‘El Paso’ is a beautifully crafted song, and its ballads like this, or ‘Wetsuit’, where the group come into their own, looking back on years of hope and heartbreak.
‘Headphones Baby’ and ‘Handsome’ follow swiftly, each easily consumable in their contagious riffs and crowd-friendly choruses. But perhaps the best ‘live’ moment of all Vaccines shows is ‘Jump Off the Top’, a song debuted at gigs long before its final studio release on last year’s …Love City. It’s simple, it’s easy to remember, and it rages like a beast in the Guildhall setting.
A stand-alone single from 2018, ‘All My Friends Are Falling in Love’ is a hearty slice of electric cynicism (practically the Vaccines’ tried and true formula, at this point) before we go into their signature sound, ‘If You Wanna’. And as Young takes up his red guitar and plays out the main set, it’s clear he’s still amazed at the reception. In that moment, everyone is thrown back to 2011, and sharing in the beer-soaked nostalgia it brings. Whether they’re playing Wembley or Pompey, the response is overwhelming.
The audience get a short break to recover, before they come back out for the heaviest track of the night, the devilishly distorted ‘XCT’, the black sheep of the Vaccines family. The chorus almost borders on the metal, with a near-mosh pit in full swing somewhere behind me. The last of my voice gives out, before we’re treated to the minute-long ‘Wreckin’ Bar (Ra Ra Ra)’, the opening song from their first album, What Did You Expect from the Vaccines?
If you’re not familiar with the group’s setlist, it’s stone-written scripture to finish on the fittingly biblical ‘All In White’, with Young acting as some televangelist, preaching his sermon to the masses, gathered in wait. It’s emotional, cinematic and a worthy end to the night. Just like that, the Vaccines have been and gone, leaving in their wake a thousand young adults screaming out for more. By now, I know what a phenomenal live band they are, but it’s nights like these where I’m happy to be taught that lesson all over again.
hoping you’re having a good weekend :)