Madness live: the Nutty Boys are still the best of British - O2 Arena review

Suggs live at London's O2 Arena
Frontman Suggs performing live at London's O2 Arena

As the title of one new Madness song puts it, where did all the good times go? Only four years ago, the ska band were performing on the rooftop of Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, a career highlight quickly followed by their set at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics. Yet if that summer marked a high point of British unity, the bitter, divided national climate of today could hardly feel more different.

After a year punctuated by the EU referendum, Donald Trump’s US election and a relentless string of high-profile deaths, frankly the last thing 2016 needs is more madness. Except, of course, when it comes to the so-called Nutty Boys, whose barrow boy charm and creative appetite appears undimmed well into what is now their fifth decade together.

In October, the band released their 11th studio album and an enjoyable return to the honky-tonk hooks and schoolboy humour that brought them such success in the Eighties. Now embarking on their first major arena tour for two years, Madness returned to the capital on Saturday for a show at the O2, which impressively saw few patches of the 20,000-capacity stadium left unfilled.

Madness played songs from their new album Can't Touch Us Now

The venue’s website billed it as a night with “Britain’s favourite pop band”. It’s a bold claim, but indeed, the Camden gang’s enduring popularity can often be underestimated. Much of this stems from the fact that Madness have never taken themselves too seriously, but that has also worked in their favour. With a heavier touch, the nostalgic vein of Britain that frontman Graham “Suggs” McPherson constantly taps into – all clumsy coppers, Routemaster buses and Tommy Cooper gags – would run the risk of jingoism, but instead it celebrates that wistful, world-renowned sense of kookiness instilled in the nation at large.

A patriotic fervour had been whipped up long before the band even appeared on stage, with support from the Lightning Seeds prompting a jubilant sing-along to their 1996 football anthem Three Lions (which, unlike the English national team, remains unbeatable). When the lights finally turned to the headline act, they did so to the squeal of air raid sirens as Suggs and co emerged from an elaborately staged jail cell. Suited and booted, with a smattering of shades and pork pie hats, it was business as usual from the band Rolling Stone magazine once cruelly dismissed as “the Blues Brothers with English accents”.

Madness in their heyday

Opening with Can’t Touch Us Now, the underwhelming title track of their latest record, it was a gentle start to the evening, but the confidence Madness have in their new batch of tracks is clear. “Even if we say so ourselves, it’s a masterpiece,” Suggs bellowed. However, a euphoric rendition of 2008 single NW5 remained the shining light of their recent hit-and-miss output.

A late onslaught of greatest hits woke up the crowd, which had battled a cold, wet night for the sheer thrill of hearing Our House in London’s biggest echo chamber. The snaking reggae groove of One Step Beyond remains beguilingly fresh nearly 40 years on, while the poignant candour of It Must Be Love transformed into a powerful call for unity.

The encore performance of Night Boat to Cairo saw a conga line of exotically dressed friends and family take to the stage, sending the veritable Red Sea of fez hats in the audience into waves of delight. Yes, it was all rather predictable, but after a year of such seismic social upheaval, it was a comforting slice of normality, like coming home for Christmas.