“Are we having fun yet?” is the most important line of How You Remind Me, Nickelback’s most important song. And by the time Chad Kroeger belts it out during the band’s 2001 breakout hit, the answer’s pretty clear. Exhibit A: the volume of the London audience shouting along to every single word. Exhibit B: the massive grin plastered across Kroeger’s face, even after almost two hours of roaring, snarling, and occasional crooning.
To be fair, the frontman has spent all night going out of his way to make sure the fans are having fun. Beneath the glossy, big-budget Las Vegas-style sound and light spectacle, he still behaves like a man who can barely believe he gets to play music for a living.
There are frequent descriptions of tonight as a party with close friends. There are Jägerbomb shots. There’s casual chat, and some corny self-deprecating humour, shared with guitarist Ryan Peake. There’s the singing of “happy birthday” for one of the crew members. There are the ongoing, jokey, one-sided conversations with his overtly reticent guitar tech, Takumi Suetsugu (whose CV includes Prince, Angus Young, and Richie Sambora).
There are more Jägerbombs. There’s the wearing of a personally decorated T-shirt handed up from the front row. There’s the inviting fans up on stage to perform with the band. And, towards the end of the show, there’s the seemingly impromptu changing of the setlist, accompanied by comments like “I don’t want tonight to end” (and run-off-their-feet roadies).
It all works remarkably well, the sense of fun and unpredictability connecting with the audience on a deeper level than bright lights, giant video screens, fog blasters, and a straight run through the hits might. Other bands have played the trick before, but it’s thrilling when the man holding up a sign asking to play Animals is pulled out of the crowd and actually turns out to be a good guitarist, with plenty of confidence to boot.
And even if the two people chosen to sing Rockstar aren’t quite as talented, their enthusiasm and joy at performing to 16 000 people is hard to ignore.
None of this would be possible without the hits that have led to album sales in excess of 50 million units and Nickelback know it. For all the hijinks and banter, the band, rounded out by drummer Daniel Adair and bass player Mike Kroeger, perform those songs with focus and precision. No extended jams, no drum solos, no ad-libbing, just the tunes that have been blaring from radios and car stereos for the past 15 years.
Instead, the surprises come from the setlist. By fulfilling their promise to play at least one track from each album, the quartet deliver the recent (the title track of last year’s Feed The Machine, the frenetic Million Miles An Hour from 2014’s No Fixed Address); the expected (rock compilation staples Photograph, Someday, and Figure You Out); and the wildcards (Dimebag Darrell tribute Side Of A Bullet, Kroeger solo release Hero from the original Spider-Man film, and 1998’s Leader Of Men, a song about being “high on magic mushrooms”, written while “high on magic mushrooms”).
This pick ‘n mix approach also allows the music to slide from sensitive (the ballads Far Away and Lullaby) to sleazy (Something In Your Mouth), from poppy (When We Stand Together) to pulverising (Burn It To The Ground), all the while adding to that sense of fun Kroeger’s so keen to create.
Review of Nickelback at The O2 on 11th May by Nils van der Linden. Photography by Simon Reed. Simon has his own music photography website at: www.musicalpictures.co.uk