I knew this gig was going to be something special when I met my mate Steve outside the venue – Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, at the summit of Duke Street – as I was arriving.
“I’m gonna catch something else for a bit, mate,” he said, hefting his camera over his shoulder, “it’s a bit mellow for me in there at the moment.”
I’m generally a pretty reserved fellow, but it took more than a bit of restraint not to shake him by the shoulders and bellow something along the lines of “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR TINY MIND? HAVE YOU ANY IDEA WHAT YOU’RE MISSING HERE?” Somehow I managed to restrict myself to a few noncommittal comments about meeting up later and hurried inside. I was already late thanks to Northern Rail (who can, for the record, eat a bag of Satan’s own dicks), and I wasn’t going to miss another second of this gig in a futile attempt to change someone’s mind. This was a big one. This was a pilgrimage to worship at the feet of one of the totems of British soul.
This was Dexys.
A quick primer for those not in the know: Dexys, also known as Dexys Midnight Runners, were formed in 1978 by two former members of Birmingham punks The Killjoys, both called Kevin. One, Kevin Rowland, forced the other, Kevin Archer, to change his name to Al, neatly avoiding what is known as the One Steve Limit and giving us our first hint that Kevin Rowland Is Insane. Together, Kevin and Al put together a nine-piece ‘New Wave Soul’ band complete with horn section, and proceeded to name them after a bit of Northern Soul slang for people who took speed in order to keep their energy levels up during the genre’s infamous Allnighters. The band dressed like New York dockers, and their first major label release, “Geno” (a song about 60s soul legend Geno Washington) reached Number One in the UK charts. The album which followed, Searching For The YoungSoul Rebels, is considered a masterpiece of Northern Soul, and also showed the first public manifestations of Kevin’s… eccentricities. After a particularly unsuccessful single, “Keep It Part Two (Inferiority Part One)”, which consisted of a spoken-word monologue set to freeform jazz sax, and a press strategy which consisted of communicating with the press entirely through adverts taken out in the British music weeklies, nearly all of the band quit, citing the fact that Kevin Rowland Is Insane. Kevin and trombonist Big Jim Paterson (who would prove to have an astonishingly high Rowland tolerance) then formed Dexys Mark II, with a new line-up, a new harder-edged soul sound and a new look, perhaps best characterised as “Rocky Birmingham-style”. The band also went completely straight-edge – a fitness regime was instated which saw the band going running together, and drinking before gigs was banned. This line-up managed one solitary single, “Plan B” (which is, in fairness, a stunning record) before inexplicably imploding in the face of having to learn new instruments and Kevin Rowland Being Insane.
Another new line-up ensued, with another new image and a radical change in direction. The hoodies and training pants were replaced with dungarees (which Rowland memorably described as his ‘best clothes’), the brass section was pared down and fiddles were brought in instead. The result was an odd yet intoxicating blend of Celtic folk and Northern Soul, an oh-so-Eighties album in Too-Rye-Ay and a perennial dancefloor filler in ‘Come On Eileen’, which topped the charts in both Britain and America. Paterson and the rest of the brass then quit, oddly enough for reasons not to do with Kevin Rowland Is Insane, and what was left of the band went on to make what is regarded as simultaneously one of the greatest artistic statements of the Eighties and one of the biggest commercial flops of all time: Don’tStand Me Down. A collection of ridiculously lengthy folk-soul jams, a record largely of spoken-word monologues, shot through with anger, sarcasm and humour and fronted by a new preppy suit-n-tie image, it’s both challenging and delightful to listen to. The band refused to release a single, because Kevin Rowlands Is Insane (something Jim Paterson obviously missed, because he came back as a session musician). For these and a myriad other reasons, the record tanked, the band broke up, and then things gotreally weird.
Kevin Rowland released a solo album, The Wanderer, which sank without trace. He then vanished for the best part of the 1990s, signed to Creation, had a shedload of money and drug issues, tried to reform Dexys with Paterson and released a covers album called My Beauty where he appears on the cover in a silk nightie and suspenders because in case you hadn’t noticed Kevin Rowland Is Insane. Finally, in 2010, the band reunited under the name Dexys, since when they have toured intermittently and released a long-awaited fourth album, One Day I’m Going To Soar. All of which – finally – brings us to tonight.
I had no idea what to expect when I arrived – which made what I got all the more exciting. 2013 vintage Dexys are showmen of the highest quality; they are tight and slick, yes, but they are still loving what they do. Their two-hour set is split into halves – in the first hour, the latest album is played in its entirety, in the process becoming more a stage-show than a set. Theatricality is the key here; deeper themes that might be obscured on record come to the fore as Kevin, co-vocalist Pete Williams and guest singer Madeleine Hyland delve into the flawed, human characters that populate these songs. At the climax of one song, Rowland in the persona of a feckless lover abandons Hyland onstage and vanishes into the wings, leaving her standing bereft and staring out into the audience as the band swells behind her. The finale, ‘It’s O.K. John Joe’, is extended into a gloriously doomy jam where Rowland laments his flaws, the wall between character and singer beginning to break down. It’s here that songs which were somewhat clinical and reserved on record fully spread their wings – Paterson and violinist Lucy Morgan leading an expert blend of folk and soul that is the zenith of the Dexys mission.
The second hour is the ‘greatest hits’ – although, as we’ve already established Kevin Rowland Is Insane, they aren’t the hits you’d expect. Here’s where any punters who wandered up hoping to get their jig on tothat song would be disappointed; this band know they don’t have to play their one-hit wonder, and given their current sound it’s impossible to see how they could actually do it justice and still have it fit into the set. What we do get is a smattering of songs off each of the three previous records; ‘Geno’ is reworked with a calypso beat where the original swerved off into a skank, and manages to fit perfectly into the mood of the evening. Three songs are strung together with an interplay between Kevin and Pete where the latter plays a police officer; Rowland, a long-time supporter of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign, threw in a masterful dig about how coppers would “never be anything less than truthful”, rousing a hearty cheer from the audience which echoed around the eaves.
Speaking of the venue – the use of the Anglican as a performance space has been one of the festival’s resounding successes, and the line-up there has been a stroke of genius (quite apart from the glorious irony of having one of England’s greatest Catholic songwriters appear there). As with the Walkmen on Friday night, Dexys have the right mix of warmth and righteousness in their sound to properly fill the vast space, and unlike some other supposedly high-profile SoundCity venues the sound has – with the slight exception of a few moments where Morgan’s violin was lost in the mix – been top-notch every inch of the way. The building still maintains some of its natural tendency to swallow consonants when the amplification’s brought in, especially given Kevin’s infamous lack of diction, but the band’s stage presence and the hard work of the sound crew ensure they pull through.
The gig ends with an extended encore of ‘This Is What She’s Like’ fromDon’t Stand Me Down, which brings us full circle; as Rowland sinks to his knees, keening in that glorious soulful croak, sweet Madeleine emerges from the wings and stands before him, bearing wordless forgiveness as Jim Paterson (who has been on magnificent form; his every note has been perfect) plays them out. A few people wait around as the house music starts up, hoping against hope to hear the faint strains of an Irish jig, but the majority wander out into St James’ Gardens to refresh and take stock.
What a way to end it all.
[ADDENDUM: An earlier version of this review erroneously referred to Pete Williams as ‘Keith’. Many thanks go to @PoetSte for catching my severe research fail.]