Paul Heaton, Bush Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Veteran performers are often uncomfortable when they return to smaller venues, but The Beautiful South's former frontman has a novel excuse. "Ten minutes ago I was on a bus going down the wrong road," he admits, mollifying fans who hope to hear the hits (Paul Heaton is here only to preview new material) and reminding us of this unlikely star's common-man persona. From his swift rise 21 years ago as leader of The Housemartins to fame with his later band, he has steered clear of fame's more ostentatious side.

Tonight, Heaton looks especially pared down, with close-cropped hair and plain, dark shirt. A three-piece band formed in his current hometown, Manchester, are just as downbeat. What is not mentioned is Heaton's last stab at a solo project, as Biscuit Boy, which disappeared without trace in 2001. That was a brief respite from his regular chart-topping feats and easy-going melodies, though by last year's final album Superbi, The Beautiful South were living on past glories.

Now Heaton is facing lyric sheets on a music stand and takes a while to warm up. He retains a fine, soulful voice, but given the distraction of his absurd puns and daft rhymes, you need to see the sinews strain to be fully drawn in, something that only happens towards the end.

Before that, the frontman distances himself from his previous outfit. "Good Old Fashioned Town" is an especially caustic put-down of small-minded Englanders. His band back him with country-rock twang and rockabilly tremolo. Often this is deftly handled, in a Richard Hawley style, though elsewhere they are so chintzy they ought to be wearing rhinestones.

"Little Red Rooster" returns to one of his regular themes, with customary sharp wit. Rather than the lascivious blues standard, he is back on struggling relationships: "Do what you used to; I'll do what I can," Heaton urges.

Even better is when the band apply driving intensity to the punky "I Do", which is a tender love song hidden beneath spiky chords.

But his closing number drags on long enough to suggest that Heaton needs an editor, with the music stand starting to look more like a lectern.