28th July 2013
Few artists are as enshrined in mythology and fascination as Kevin Rowland.
From iron fisted soul Fuhrer to the sharp, Parisian gentleman of 2013 Kevin Rowland has been in turns an uncomfortable ‘80s pop star, drug addict and vagrant, silk skirt wearing covers artist – the many guises and legends are well worn stories that seem to become something of a distraction from the fact that at his best, few have shone so brightly.
As far as white soul albums goes, ‘Searching for the Young Soul Rebels’ gives even Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’ an aggressive stare and run for its money, and last year’s ‘One Day I’m Going to Soar’ was every bit the triumph that had been long hoped for. Living up to your own legend can be near impossible, but in the last twelve months since the release of ‘One Day I’m Going to Soar’, Rowland has managed to do just that.
All the same, there’s a prevailing sense amongst the front rows at tonight’s festival in Stockton that every moment tonight must be savoured because, as the current touring schedule winds down for this year, this could well be it. Again. The nature of tonight being a festival brings a curious array of perceptions from the audience; there’s more than a little distance between those fully immersed in ‘One Day I’m Going to Soar’ – and tonight it is very much something you have to immerse yourself in – and those expecting a breezy dungareed hit parade. After the gushing applause that greets Dexy’s entrance to the stage, a reverent hush very quickly descends. The band stand stoic in darkness as the opening piano refrain to ‘Now’ resounds across the festival. Rowland steps forward, clad in a high-waisted baby blue suit complete with braces and black beret; not only looking not quite his age but from a different age altogether. ‘Now’ begins in the rocky fields of 1940’s Connaught in the west ofIreland as the lilting piano line erupts into a full soul stomp. Ireland has always loomed large over Kevin Rowland’s lyrics; the original trilogy of Dexy’s Midnight Runners albums themselves bookended by two very different tracks on Ireland – the blistering ‘Burn It Down’ and the beautiful ‘The Waltz’.
With red velvet curtain and immaculate vintage clothing, Dexy’s show is highly theatrical and delivered with a spoonful of a very knowing high camp – indeed the album’s centrepiece of Kevin Rowland’s failure to commit to a relationship with the exquisite Madeleine Hyland is as much Gilbert and Sullivan as it is Geno Washington. Every ounce of this is perfectly realised and expertly delivered, it’s clear that whilst the non-compromising aggression that once pulsated through everything Kevin Rowland did may have subsided, none of the whipcrack or perfectionism has been lost. Vocalist (and studio bassist) Pete Williams is the perfect onstage foil for Kevin Rowland, acting as something of a medium between audience and artist with every knowing look or wry shake of the head. The unfaltering dedication to Dexy’s is notable in both audience and onstage; Dexy’s stalwarts like Williams, Big Jim Patterson and Lucy Morgan have served through uneasy times and several false re-starts and it’s easy here to see what it was that got them through.
Where most of Dexy’s shows since their live return last year have seen them perform the album in full before a selection of older cuts – mostly from their once-maligned-now-worshipped opus ‘Don’t Stand Me Down’ – tonight sees just over half of ‘One Day I’m Going to Soar’ aired in favour of a greater re-evaluation of their older material. And re-evaluation it is. ‘Tell Me When My Light Turns Green’ has been completely re-imagined as a mid-temp croon, whilst the Latino flavours now injected into ‘Geno’ blow the cobwebs off one of Dexy’s most celebrated moments. The audience gratitude that visibly overwhelms Kevin Rowland tonight would probably have seemed unthinkable at the time of Rowland’s infamous first comeback; ‘My Beauty’ in 1999 was an album of cover versions of songs such as ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, ‘Daydream Believer’ and ‘The Greatest Love Of All’ that was delivered by Rowland in a short, white silk dress and make-up. Incidentally, when the album worked it really worked (see ‘The Greatest Love Of All’ and ‘Labelled With Love’) and the scathing vitriol with which the music press spat it out says more about the conservatism of most rock critics than it does Rowland’s project.
Few acts could be forgiven running up some thirty-five minutes with just two songs, but the nights climax of a seldom aired ‘Come On Eileen’ and a truly sensational ‘This is What She’s Like’ seem to warrant such expansive treatment. How to approach the elephant in the room of ‘Come On Eileen’ could be something of a thankless task – the track that simultaneously propelled them to global prominence yet somehow became too great an albatross to carry is still a thorny issue in the set. By remaining relatively faithful to the original and instead choosing to expand and explore unexpected avenues of the song, Dexy’s tonight manage to salvage a song sullied by every beery wedding disco you’ve ever been to and find a way to reveal something of the song’s original charm of Catholic lust and trepedatious seduction.
Whilst the large segments of the Stockton audience unaware of Dexy’s full history seem consistently on-board tonight, it’s ‘Come on Eileen’ that delivers from the barrier to the back tonight and wakes up corners of the crowd previously slightly lost into the night. However, it is finale ‘This is What She’s Like’ that really delights. Whilst the original three minute spoken word conversation intro has been eschewed into just a brief, humorous dialogue – the familiar lines about those who iron creases into their Levi’s and use the term tongue-in-cheek are received with giddy appreciation. Whilst to dub ‘This is What She’s Like’ a rock opera would be tantamount to sacrilege, it’s multiple movements and layers certainly do betray something of a rock opera sensibility albeit with none of the fat and excess traditionally found. Audacious yet well-judged with humour, style and defiance; ‘This is What She’s Like’ is as fitting a summation of what Dexy’s are about as anything. Tonight, like Dexy’s reformation altogether, was a triumph – but unlike previous Dexy’s triumphs they don’t now have time on their side to repeat it. The mythology surrounding Kevin Rowland and Dexy’s ultimately doesn’t really matter – what matters is that finally the promise always threatened and sometimes reached in those early albums has been paid justice to and the band find themselves a well-loved and exceptionally capable outfit with everything to play for in their future.