“It’s been two years since we’ve played live,” singer Suggs declares, reflecting on how the pandemic derailed this British pop institution. “I’ve found myself singing at old grannies at the bus stop.” Still, within seconds, band and audience resume their positions for the traditional festive staple of a Madness December tour. Around a quarter of the crowd are wearing fezzes. The sunglassed, besuited vocalist begins the evening in a stage-left phone box, supposedly phoning his mum, and still has the charmingly befuddled air of someone who woke up from a dream to find himself onstage in an arena. At 60, he changes the “I’m feeling twice as older” line in 1980’s Embarrassment to “three times as older”. He doesn’t need to complete the “Hey you, don’t watch that …” intro to One Step Beyond – the audience do it for him.
Without a new album to promote, this tour leans heavily on the hits, and The Prince and a glorious My Girl set a high bar which, in fairness, they don’t drop far below all night. More recent songs NW5 and Mr Apples easily punch their weight. The “nutty boys” image belies the rich content of Madness’s material, which documents all sorts of aspects of British life including homelessness and racial prejudice. Two songs are so new they are unreleased. Baby Burglar reflects on a misspent youth of “petty criminality” over a samba-ish rhythm. “I thought I might go mad in the last couple of years, but who’s to say I wasn’t already?” Suggs quips, by way of introducing If I Go Mad, which has enough hooks to become yet another Madness banger.
The venue’s boomy sound and a missed vocal cue at the start of The Sun and the Rain can’t dampen a fearsome home run of classics, and that song is beautifully illustrated with film of Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain. Their own street scene stage backdrop is perfect for Our House, and It Must Be Love becomes an epic sing-song. “No more singing to old ladies!” yells Suggs, surveying the crowd rapture. “This is the stuff!”
• Madness play Bournemouth International Centre on 6 December. Then touring, with Squeeze supporting on all dates.