Dexys Midnight Runners, Royal Festival Hall, London
Wednesday 12 November 2003
It was 18 years ago this month that Kevin Rowland last took the stage fronting an outfit called Dexys Midnight Runners. Back then the group played to half-empty venues promoting a third album, Don't Stand Me Down, that marked a sharp downturn in their critical and commercial fortunes.
Dexys had emerged in the post-punk wilderness full of fervent intensity, and progressed through donkey-jacket-wearing street soul to dungaree-clad, fiddle-fuelled, Van Morrison-influenced Celtic soul. But in retrospect, the No 1 smashes "Geno" and "Come On Eileen" were aberrations; essentially the band was a vehicle for Rowland's embattled, often fearful worldview.
Back in 1985 the audience came to hear the hits. The studied theatricality, the spoken-word interludes, the new, preppy Ivy League outfits and regular appearances of a stage policeman to make enquiries about Rowland's report of "a burning feeling" did not impress. At a show in Brighton, Kevin threatened a heckler with direct physical action if he continued.
The heckler continued, but soon after the tour Dexys collapsed, and in the years since, Rowland has been through bankruptcy, addiction and recovery. A 1999 solo comeback saw him wearing a dress and being bottled offstage at the Reading festival.
But Rowland's faith and tenacity have been rewarded - in recent years Don't Stand Me Down has been rightfully reclaimed as a lost Eighties classic. It is this healthy revisionism that has encouraged Kevin to resume his search for the now not-so-young soul rebels. Tonight's eagerly awaited return is a vindication of both his younger, headstrong self and the newly calm 49-year-old of today.
It begins with a bass guitar playing the melody of "Danny Boy" in the darkness. The band take their places and Rowland emerges onstage singing "Don't Stand Me Down". In shades and a baggy pinstripe suit, with a long fur coat draped over his shoulders, he looks like an aged gangster come to reclaim his turf. He's accompanied by Pete Williams, the bassist in the original line-up, now brilliantly recast as a second vocalist, a sweet foil to Kevin's stern admonishments.
Aside from the organist, Mick Talbot, the band members are new. Lucy Morgan's violin exacts all the emotional mileage from the baleful hymn to ageing that is "Old", the trombonist fires up the exuberant statement of intent "Let's Make This Precious" and the brooding "Looking To Win" is filled with dread. Rowland's ability to assemble a well-drilled line-up clearly remains as strong as ever.
"Come On Eileen" and "Geno" both get thorough but respectful overhauls. The tempos and lyrics may change, but the intent and the purpose remain the same. Rowland's act is a long, confessional cry from the heart. The policeman from 1985 reappears, and the comedy underscores the drama. The face-to-face stand-offs with Williams are executed with great showmanship, and deepen the paranoid psychodrama of "Liars A to E".
"This Is What She's Like", Don't Stand Me Down's epic centrepiece, gets the most rapturous reception of the evening. It may be the angriest love song ever written, but by the end Rowland is triumphant, overjoyed. Charging round the stage in white shirt and pink braces, he strikes the pose of a victorious prizefighter. As well he might - that burning feeling he reported all those years ago hasn't gone, and still merits serious investigation. Comeback of the year? No contest.
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