Embarking on an arena tour as an opening act – on paper, at least – is quite the exciting prospect. You get to play massive rooms, you get to see a huge band every night and you get to expose your music to an audience that, for the most part, would have never heard you otherwise. It’s worth remembering, however, that putting this into practice can be a double-edged sword – as Henry Rollins once described it, “The good news is that the audience is that the audience is only there to see one band. The bad news is you’re not in that band.” Such a fate awaits Deaf Havana, the arena-aspiring pop-rock act who play broad-brush, radio-friendly songs in the spirit of latter-day You Me At Six, Young Guns and Twin Atlantic. Elements of their sound are interesting enough – particularly when they accentuate their three-part vocal harmonies – but unfortunately their hooks just aren’t sharp enough to leave a greater lasting impression. It certainly doesn’t help that their audience is roughly a thousand people milling about a venue that houses roughly six; who are overwhelmingly indifferent to whatever moves the band is making. Nature of the beast, alas.

While we’re on the subject: This tour has no doubt been one of the most confusing, disappointing mishandlings of a beloved band in recent memories. Having previously come out to sell-out shows and big-name festival appearances, Placebo have instead spent this entire run born under a bad sign – the first show of the tour was cancelled due to illness 10 minutes after doors opened; and their Sydney show, which fatefully clashed with fellow turn-of-the-century goth heroes AFI, drew only five thousand people to the 17,000 capacity Qudos Bank Arena. For a tour that was started to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the band’s self-titled debut album, it seems unfair for it to proceed to a country that’s always been unwaveringly supportive of the band and have it proceed not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Still, the band soldiers on as they arrive – somewhat inexplicably – in Newcastle, a city the band has never played before. The audience has doubled to that of what was present during Deaf Havana’s set, but that’s still not saying all that much as roughly two-thirds of the venue is empty. What follows is a show that’s equal parts frustration and reward – literally simultaneous, in certain instances. For example, as the lights go down, the set begins with perhaps the band’s biggest commercial hit, “Every You Every Me”… being played on a video screen. What purpose does this serve? Why acknowledge it at all if it’s just going to remind people that they’re not actually going to play it. It’s a bitter pill to swallow that the set begins on a cop-out of astronomical proportions; although it is quickly swayed by the band emerging one by one and kicking into “Pure Morning” for real.

Although the live set-up is a little bloated at a six-piece – at least one person is inevitably left standing around with nothing to do in every song – there’s still a joy in watching Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal as performers. The latter, in particular, is mesmerising as he stretches his six-foot-four frame around his instrument of choice; while Molko still endeavours to be ever the showman and does his best given the circumstances.

The major issue of the show arises in the form of its set-list. For a show that is meant to celebrate 20 years of Placebo, one would assume that would be a call for some of the band’s most well-loved songs and fan favourites. Songs like “36 Degrees,” “Taste in Men,” “You Don’t Care About Us” or “Bruise Pristine.” No, no, no and no; respectively. Instead, we’re given songs like the numbingly-boring “Devil in the Details,” “I Know” and “Space Monkey;” all of which come back to back in what can only be described as a 15-minute toilet break. “What a waste of time and money,” Molko had sighed earlier after kicking out two living embodiments of toxic masculinity attempting to punch on three songs in. By the time “Exit Wounds” finishes, those actually invested in the show may have been thinking the same thing.

That’s where the reward comes back into play: Out come “Special K,” “Song to Say Goodbye,” “The Bitter End,” “Nancy Boy,” “Infra-Red.” Not to mention a beautiful “Without You I’m Nothing,” which also doubles as a tribute to the late, great David Bowie. Where have these songs been hiding all this time, exactly? Suddenly, the show is back on track – maybe too late, but certainly not too little. Their swelling, theatrical take on Kate Bush’s “Running Up that Hill” concludes the evening, and with it comes a mindset that’s entirely confused as to what to make of such a show. On one hand, Placebo came through with the goods and justified their 20 years with a blistering finale. On the other, they took the long and entirely un-scenic route of getting there. Those that may have considered themselves a fan of the band could have – completely understandably – left this show wondering if they ever really were as such. A bittersweet, conflicting show; equal parts high and low-lights that leaves a band that once revelled in darkness now merely floating in grey area. Change your style again, Placebo. Come home.

 – David James Young