Panther Setlist 2014@Newcastle O2 Academy, March 18 2014

Subtlety has never been one of Steel Panther’s strongest suits and yet – whisper it quietly – the ultimate bad-taste band could well be making a stealthy move towards the mainstream.

It’s not as if they’ll be appearing on Blue Peter anytime soon. And it’s difficult to imagine Q Magazine devoting a double spread to their songwriting prowess. However, the joke – as it is – can’t last forever. 

So how does a band like the Panther continue to pack out theatre-size venues, sell more records and secure main stage slots at the Download festival?

It used to be that the patronage of Live Nation (a considerable weapon in their armoury), a few cheesy lines and the occasional stripper was enough. But the Spreading The Disease tour offers compelling evidence that Steel Panther are upping their game and changing their plays.

Sure there are still the cheeky peeps down fans’ pants, the crass sexual simulation and the ill-advised references to Lostprophets and drink-driving. But even these inevitable staples of the Panther set are hardly shocking now their core fan base has seen and heard it all before.

Evolution is key.

What impresses most about the band’s latest show is the increased professionalism, the superior production values and the intensity of the performance.

Backed by a pin-sharp screen featuring video promos and band footage, the Panther are edging closer towards emulating their hair metal heroes in terms of delivering a glossy live spectacle with bells on. Where they were once content to send up Poison, Winger, Leppard and the Crue they clearly want to be those bands sometime soon.

Even new tunes Party Like Tomorrow Is The End Of The World and The Burden Of Being Wonderful are far from Panther’s most controversial compositions: given the odd lyrical tweak it’s not a huge leap to imagine both making an impact on mainstream radio.

Of course playing it safe – and the hard-living quartet has never advocated that – risks alienating the spotty teens and their voyeuristic big brothers who love nothing more than an X-rated trip down misogyny lane. Will toning it down maintain the band’s upward trajectory or do potentially bland party anthems equate to career suicide?

Only time will tell. But right now Steel Panther are still funny, still sharp, still pushing the boundaries and still packing them in. So why change what ain’t broke? The answer lies in the fact that nothing lasts forever.

Like their idols before them, Michael Starr and his mates know the time will come when it’s reinvention or bust (no pun intended) and it’s a case of judging just when that time will come. How the band are received after Winger – and before headliners Aerosmith – at Download in June will offer some kind of answer.

Significantly, support act The Cringe are big fans of the spoof metallers despite pedaling their own earnest line in Rush-meets-Foos post-grunge hard rock. The US stalwarts – four albums in and fresh from a seventh successive appearance at the SXWS festival – share the view that all the evidence points to a subtle Panther reboot.

The decision to bring The Cringe along for the ride – rather than using another hair metal clone to open things up – offered further evidence that the headline act is striving for fresh credibility and a long overdue reappraisal.

It was certainly brave (bordering on the foolhardy, perhaps) to give 40 minutes to a band more suited to sharing a stage with Soundgarden than Steel Panther. But The Cringe are a confident act boasting a quality back catalogue and the twin talents of charismatic frontman John Cusimano and well-travelled guitar hero Roto. A nerveless first ever UK show suggested British fans could finally warm to one of America’s best-loved alt-rock staples.

Simon Rushworth