I’d seen opening act Cherry Ghost a couple of times before, at least once as support to his friend Paul Heaton. He’s a very capable songwriter with an expressive delivery, but I’m not sure I would pay good money to see him headline or actually buy an album. I don’t know why. One song, “Mary Ann,” was the highlight of his 40-minute slot, and a song called “4AM” drew some applause from the sparse crowd as soon as it was introduced. So, he must have some fans out there.
In fairness, I did enjoy the slow and melancholic “Drinking For Two”, which was about being stood up and sitting all alone in a bar with two sad drinks in front of you. But, I’m a sucker for sad songs.
He ended his set by insisting we would recognize the final song (I didn’t) and he had actually written it. I just wish I’d known what it was and who had the hit.
Paul Heaton, meanwhile, is one of Britain’s last musical geniuses–a lineage that goes back to the Kinks and passes seamlessly through the Faces, Squeeze, Ian Dury and Madness, all writing numerous hit singles that combine melodies, choruses and, if you listen carefully, satire and socio-political observations too. Heaton’s songwriting comments on working class life and the people, good and bad, who inhabit it. He could easily lash his wagon to anyone of a million retro-tours. Or, if he was to go out on the road as the Beautiful South, he would comfortably fill arenas across the length and breadth of the U.K. But, after splitting up that particular band–citing “musical indifference”–he has gone on to plough a lonely furrow, releasing four solo albums and never even attempting to mirror his previous successes.
When the buzzer went off letting the fans in the packed bar know it was nearly time for the headline act, beer was quickly guzzled and a mad dash for the atalls and circle ensued. Several fans did not check their tickets first and ended in the wrong part of the beautiful theatre. (Cue friendly but drunken mayhem.)
By the time the house lights dimmed, everyone downstairs appeared to be in the right seats as a shadowy figure on stage built the tension with a crashing and squealing guitar solo. The other band member filed on. But, when the crowd made out the silhouettes of Jacqui Abbott and Paul Heaton, the roar that greeted them nearly shook the plaster off the Victorian walls.
Looking incredibly nervous, the Beautiful South’s longest serving female singer opened the proceedings with “Million to One” from their new album. As it ended, her face was a picture. The packed audience roared their approval, as her voice is still A1.
After thanking the crowd for welcoming Jacqui back, and before he’d finished his introduction, the knowledgeable fans realized that Heaton was going to sing a Beautiful South song–“Old Red Eyes is Back”–which is something he’d not done since going solo seven years ago. The look of ecstasy on the faces of the men sitting around me told its own story, as their gang leader treated them to a glorious version of the hit single.
Ever the benign dictator, Heaton immediately stepped aside again, allowing Jacqui to take the lead on another new song, “Some Dancing to Do”. During the applause, the band seamlessly launched into the instantly recognizable “Rotterdam”, which became a raucous singalong. Scores of grey-haired and bald fans spilled into the aisles to dance like this was the greatest wedding ever.
I could list each song in intimate detail, but won’t. Suffice to say the loyal fans were rewarded with a lovely mix of Beautiful South songs (“Prettiest Eyes” nearly had me crying), new songs (“D.I.Y.” was a glorious country romp that had scary battle-scarred men dad-dancing with each other), and even a couple of ancient Housemartins songs for good measure.
Highlights, you ask? The working class anthem “Carry On Regardless” had hundreds of us punching the air as we belted out the chorus. There were a couple of seconds of anticipation toward the end of the first verse of “Don’t Marry Me”,’ until Jacqui cried out the X-rated chorus (not the sanitized radio version), much to everyone’s delight. Never has the f-word been used in such a funny way in a pop song.
The first night of the tour “ended” with Heaton’s signature song and one that gets played at every British middle-aged party: the Housemartins’ “Happy Hour”. Knowing glances were passed around by many of us who had been there that night in 1986 when the Housemartins first came to Newcastle and a love affair began.
The band trooped back for the obligatory encore, “I’ll Sail This Ship Alone”, which had happy loving couples smooching and swaying before Heaton strapped on a bright red Fender to perform a scorching version of “Me and the Farmer”. That had the Dads and Granddads bouncing in the aisles again.
Heaton and Company left the stage to roars and cheers more suited to the football ground a couple of hundred yards away. The cheers lasted so long, the band eventually came back for a second encore.
To the accompaniment of just piano and guitar, and the others providing harmonies, Jacqui sang “The Snowman” from the new album. As the boom of approval died down, the band all lined up along the front of the stage sans instruments. And, sure enough, we were treat to the finest Christmas #1 ever. “Caravan of Love” started out as five-part harmony and ended as 505-part harmony, as everyone joined in to round off a bloody great evening.