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Rowland's Return: Dexys Live At Shepherd's Bush
Tariq Goddard , May 12th, 2012 05:48

As Dexys prepare to release One Day I'm Going To Soar, Tariq Goddard witnesses its live debut at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire

The difference between loving and not liking and rating and simply not thinking a thing is worth consideration at all should not apply to Dexys (Midnight Runners), who were never a 'cult' band... yet outside a circle of believers, it does to a point.

While it's unsurprising that Dexys are more of an acquired taste than most groups you might hear at a wedding, the fact that they are playing Shepherd's Bush and not headlining Heaton Park shows that this is a reformation with short arms. Bands with far less of a knack for strong chorus's (anyone from Pink Floyd to Oasis) enjoy a general acceptance that Dexys have never quite attained.

The critical excitement (generated mainly by devotees of which I am one) that surrounds their new album, One Day I'm Going To Soar has met with wider bafflement, for Dexys have an unwarranted image problem.

This is particularly ironic as for the initiated Dexys image(s) were one of their great strengths. Theirs was a short career that did not really resemble itself, each album looking like it could have been recorded by a different group, a forgotten MOR solo record and a transvestite covers phase baffling those that followed lead singer Kevin Rowland's later career, the most famous image of the band still being the dungaree coeds of 'Too-Rye-Ay' that I first encountered on children's TV twenty years ago. Just as with the Ivy League look of 'Don't Stand Me Down', a lot of people chose to smirk, roll their eyes and not get it. For them Rowland was not a meticulous genius, planning the narrative of his career arc as a general would a battle, just a guy with a couple of good tunes who looked a bit odd. That is a mis-perception that the current incarnation of the group ought to bury forever, should the world receive them as Shepherds Bush did.

The downside with genius is humourlessness, or a peculiar sense of humour that sells your talent short. Tonight, Rowland's humour is somewhere in-between, like Caligula he dares you to laugh in the wrong places, sandwiching passion, which is really his thing, with  therapeutic stand up.

The passion veers more towards yearning these days than anger, and co vocalist Pete Williams is nearer a confidante than comic foil, despite dressing up as a policeman at one point. Rowland is all energy and resembles an aging Maltese Shakespeare as he acts out his songs, his outfit pure Guys and Dolls, the rest of the band similarly though less severely attired.

Trombonist 'Big' Jim Patterson, the bands gravitational centre, stands to one side like an extra from the Kansas scenes from The Wizard of Oz, his overalls having seen long service in hard stations, Rowland only taking his tie off for an encore, all nine individuals looking very much a band.

The opening is characteristically challenging, the opening eleven songs in fact, as the still unreleased album is played in its  chronological entirety. Dexys range and sense of history is sufficiently integrated for this to not sound as demanding as it should, and the ever diminishing returns of touring as a greatest hits act were never going to appeal to Rowland. As the venue is all seated anyone who wanted to drift to the bar has a row of laps to surf over, so the band are at least guaranteed a necessarily captive audience.

The crowd watches and listens but can't really participate yet and the curiosity in the room is palpable. Fortunately the new material is compelling yet closer to a tightly scripted musical than a gig, the action seemingly choreographed and precise. Though not a concept album there is a theme, one man's changing attitude towards his own capacity to love, to not love, and to wonder what it is to love. To his credit Rowland makes light work of it. The object of this emotional journey is new member Madeleine Hyland, first superimposed over the stage as a giant ideal of beauty to which Rowland addresses his songs, then joining him on stage in her human incarnation.

This is nearly too cute a conceit for such honest songs. The cabaret touches and theatrical mood (Rowland collapses on stage, Hyland pulls a lot of faces) neither compliments or takes anything away from the material, her presence perhaps better reduced to a solely musical contribution.

The tension slackens during the only 'tidy' period of the evening, Ex-Style Councilor and former member Mick Talbot's mainly inspired contribution ambles into a Sade-ean cul-de-sac, the track rescued from a jazzy grave by Rowland's vocal anti-polish. His voice is as powerful as it is idiosyncratic, its English finish localizing it pleasingly, the reach and force contrasting beautifully with the spoken word parts that come and go throughout. Rounding off with 'It's Okay John-Joe' Rowland switches between song and words, conducting a transcendence that can be turned on and off, the sense that Dexys is a vehicle for his personal disclosure stronger than ever.

Despite knowing his onions Rowland is not interested in clever  self reference, Dexys songs, even when they riff off the music that inspired them (he sings Marvin Gaye at one point) are not about other songs, however much they are endowed with the same spirit as his heroes. Rowland looks beyond cliche and pastiche into life and the experiences that music will always be the purest response to. At its best much of tonight ('Tell Me When My Light Turns Green', 'Until I Believe In My Soul') does more than thrill in its own right; it persuades the listener that exposure to this stuff will help anticipate the next outbreak of love they encounter, allow them to understand it better, even enjoy it more.

Weirdly 'Come On Eileen', never a surprise to hear at a public event, comes as a welcome shock here. That it is an obvious choice shows an endearing softening in Rowland and the crowd are on their feet and stay there, the song retrieved from the cultural history of the last twenty years and properly rediscovered. The show finishes with 'Tell Me What She's Like', the music powerful, muscular and confident, the fiddle and brass creating one of the most unusual wall of sounds a happy audience has ever gone home to. Apparently they always perform like this.

Contemporary music may be too diffuse and niche-driven for Rowland and Dexys to enjoy any kind of centrality again, far less appear on children's TV, not unless 'Geno' is covered on Pop Idol or Rowland appears on Celebrity Big Brother. Neither will happen. In the meantime there will be few reformations attempted for motives as pure or results as worthy of those motives as Dexys.     

Tariq Goddard's new novel The Message is out now on zer0 books. He will be reading from it at the Salisbury Playhouse Theatre on May 27th