Dexys Midnight Runners, The Anvil, Basingstoke, <br></br>Christina Aguilera, MEN Arena, Manchester

After the dress and the coke - it's the comeback
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

'Compromise is the devil talking," Kevin Rowland sang in 1985, "and he talked to me." Not one to listen to advice, no matter how exalted or abased the advisor, compromise has never been Kevin's style. And so, when he announces that the songs we hear tonight may not sound the way we remember them, because "the way I look at it, the world's changed... so why shouldn't we?", he is wildly applauded, not booed. This has always been the Rowland way. If Dexys Midnight Runners gave you what you wanted... well, you wouldn't want it.

Last time I heard any of these songs performed live (The Bridge tour, autumn 1982, Cardiff St David's Hall, still got the programme), I was a 15-year-old attending my first concert, and - before The Smiths, way before Manic Street Preachers - Dexys Midnight Runners, and their albums Searching For The Young Soul Rebels and Too-Rye-Ay, were the bedroom soundtrack to my youthful alienation and solitude. I never thought I'd see them performed again. You'll forgive me for spending most of this show choking back the tears.

The intervening years have been a zig-zagging graph for Rowland, during which he released one of the greatest albums ever made (the low-selling, but artistically triumphant Don't Stand Me Down), got hooked on cocaine, found religion, underwent rehab, and made one misunderstood, cruelly pilloried solo venture (even after 40 years of pop, the sight of a man in a dress was apparently too much for some), before embarking on what he terms the "reinvention" of Dexys Midnight Runners.

By the time I catch Dexys' tour, it's in Basingstoke, a soulless shopping mall on London's commuter belt. Rowland steps out of the shadows sporting a powder-blue blazer, white Oxford bags, expensive Italian shades and a pencil moustache (if the original Dexys look was Mean Streets, then now it's Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). The new nine-piece Dexys (one trombone, one violin), all in waistcoats, feature two other past members: keyboardist Mick Talbot, and original bassist Pete Williams, who has been promoted to co-singer, presumably because he can hit the high notes which Kevin can't always reach (and also, a psychologist might speculate, as a crutch). The interplay between the two of them works well, with Williams, dressed as a policeman, arresting Rowland for the crime of "burning" (re-enacting an old Eighties routine), and providing the straight-man banter in an astonishing, 20-minute encore of "This Is What She's Like".

There are, inevitably, numerous office party/ hen night types in the house, lured by the opportunity to clap along to "Geno" and "Come On Eileen", both of which are performed, and with relatively straight renditions (Kev's perverse, but he's not that perverse, and even throws in "Because Of You", his theme from the BBC sitcom Brush Strokes).

However, there are also plenty of dedicated Dexyphiles who never lost the faith, whose vocal support encourages Rowland, nervous at first, to rediscover his confidence: as "Let's Make This Precious" segues gloriously into "Listen To This", he falls to his knees in a slick dance move, and really opens his lungs. They carry him through the non-crowdpleasers, such as new song "My Life In England" and a cover of "Nightshift" by The Commodores. The latter may appear as eyebrow-raising as did "The Greatest Love Of All" on Kevin's solo album, but in context it makes sense (a tribute to Marvin Gaye is not so far removed from a tribute to Geno Washington). "You can't please everybody..." Kevin shrugs, "so you may as well please yourself."

Has Rowland mellowed? Well, on his first album, he yelped, "Keep me away from Leeds"; on Friday, he played a show there. In recent years, Kevin has made efforts, à la 12 Step, to make karmic atonement for his past misdeeds, making his peace with bandmates he has wronged, etc. Many of the lyrical revisions seem to follow this pattern. "Soon" is now in the past tense, and seems to have acquired religious overtones. "Until I Believe In My Soul", also in the past tense, now says "I was such an arrogant boy" (instead of "such a good boy"). There's an acknowledgement of the onset of maturity too: on "Tell Me When My Light Turns Green" he sings "seen quite a bit in my 49 years" (not "23"), and "Old" - which Rowland wrote imagining what it must be like to be elderly - is now increasingly autobiographical (Kevin would "like to surrender too"). Most notably, on the extraordinary "This Is What She's Like", the "scum from Notting Hill and Moseley" are now "lads", and the British upper classes are no longer "thick and ignorant" but merely "do that stuff they do". As a result, much of the vitriol and spite has been excised. But if I want that, I can listen to the records.

Dexys Midnight Runners called one of their 1980s tours The Intense Emotion Revue. As tonight's show reaches its climax, and Rowland and Williams drop to a praying position against a fearsome storm of noise, you can see exactly what they meant.

Who among us can take our eyes off a car wreck? For the last few years, watching Christina Aguilera, as she apparently mutated into a junior Cher, pathologically dedicated to out-sexing Britney (in a spirit of "anything you can do, I can do with fewer clothes on"), had all the gruesome fascination of a slow-motion motorway pile-up. Is it just me though, or is she suddenly becoming - whisper it - quite good? By the time I've navigated the farcical box office arrangements at the MEN Arena, Xtina has already told us how "Dirrty" she is, and is now telling us she's 22, she's "done a lot of growing up", and "this song is about being yourself".

Well, they all are. Aguilera pays more than lip service to individualism: the gay and lesbian kisses in the "Beautiful" video were, in context, groundbreaking. To a lot of people, Aguilera is what Americans would call a "skanky ho", plain and simple. She clearly sees herself, however, as something of a Girl Power icon. "I wrote this for you," she says before "Can't Hold Us Down" to a predominantly female crowd, "about the double standards between men and women." And while it might be a stretch to interpret the giant Cuban flags which accompany "Mi Reflejo" as a statement of solidarity with Castro, anything likely to upset the Bush regime, even inadvertently, is to be applauded.

Aguilera, though, is the American dream made flesh. Blessed with no outstanding talent, a powerful but characterless voice, a reasonably pneumatic body and a serviceably pretty face, her rise is, like Madonna's, a testament to pure, unglamorous determination and ambition, the belief that if she shakes her white trash/ Puerto Rican ass enough, she'll get famous. Unlike Madonna, Xtina is likeable.

The show is reasonable enough, too. For the Alicia Keys-penned "Impossible" she writhes atop a grand piano, Fabulous Baker Boys style. For "Lady Marmalade" there are basques and chaises longues. For a cover of Etta James's "At Last", she unleashes the vocal gymnastics parodied so wickedly by Kelly Osbourne at the Christmas dinner table.

But one moment will live in the memory. For a turbo-charged version of "Genie In A Bottle", Xtina makes her entrance, wearing leather chaps, 30 per cent of a leotard and little else, crucified on a flaming cross. An X-shaped cross, that is: the authentic Roman manner in which, many historians agree, Christ himself may have met his maker... although, on the issue of the chaps and the leotard, they remain disunited.

s.price@independent.co.uk

Dexys: Music Hall, Aberdeen (01224 641122), ton; Pavilion, Glasgow (0141 332 1846), Mon; Opera House, Newcastle (0191 232 0899), Tue; Manchester Uni (0161 832 1111), Thur; Royal Court, Liverpool (0151 709 4321), Fri; Derngate, Northampton (01604 624811), Sat; tours. Christina: Wembley Arena (0870 7390739), ton, Mon, Wed; NEC, B'ham (0870 154 4040), Fri; Sheffield Arena (0870 154 4040), Sat; tours

Comments