The Beautiful South, Colston Hall, Bristol

How I fell in love with Heaton the hooligan...

But this, in a sense, is the whole point. Paul Heaton, pop's reluctant optimist, is also perhaps its ultimate entryist, an incorrigible contrarian and provocateur whose songs of class conflict and sexual politics are, nevertheless, all over the jukey in the pub where your mum and dad drink, and whose first greatest hits collection, Carry On Up The Charts, was the third-biggest selling album in British history (after Michael Jackson and Phil Collins).

This, in itself, makes him a figure worthy of closer examination. What makes him a truly interesting character are his numerous contradictions. A cliché it may be, but he's the archetypal man of many facets. In broad, crude brushstrokes: he's the Marxist who advocated belief in Jesus (and shaved a cross into his hair). He's the writer of vérité lyrics who, on "Song For Whoever", brilliantly and pitilessly excoriates writers of vérité lyrics for their exploitativeness. He's the sometime hard drinker who, on "Old Red Eyes is Back", takes an equally merciless view of alcoholics. He's the writer of The Housemartins' "Flag Day" - a song which strongly affected my way of thinking about charity, and the way it props up capitalism by acting as its crutch and its conscience - who recently lined up alongside Boris Johnson at the Madejski Stadium in an England vs Germany football match in aid of a cancer charity and the Red Cross.

Furthermore, his views on football hooliganism (he admits to running with the Blades' naughtiest boys in his youth, and has penned forewords to hoolies' memoirs) may also jar with commonly-held perceptions that he's some sort of peace-loving right-on New Man, although that may be the fault of the perception-holder rather than a contradiction, per se.

It's those radio-friendly hits, though, not the foibles of Paul Heaton's psyche, which are filling venues, and which - skilfully dotted amongst selections from their new album Superbi - make The Beautiful South's live show an unexpected pleasure, a real case of "I didn't realise how many songs I liked..."

The personnel are almost incidental. Dressed in military-style jackets and cloth caps, the three singers - Dave Hemingway, Alison Wheeler (who has ably replaced Jacqueline Abbott, who in turn replaced Brianna Corrigan) and Heaton himself - look like Soviet sailors from the 1950s. It's a team thing, an anti-star ethic. When it's not someone's turn to sing, they fade back into the shadows. When it's their turn, they fade forward again, with no fuss, no grandstanding, no spotlights. In this sense, the 11-piece band, or perhaps that should be XI, operate like a musical equivalent of Ajax's total football (a reference Heaton, a football trainspotter, would recognise).

Aside from some comedy dancing from Heaton and the giant balloons they throw into the crowd for the encores, there's little in the way of showbiz. The songs themselves, however, are key. All human life is here. Heaton writes with the recognition that dramatic events - "that murder in '73, that robbery in '62" - happen at lengthy intervals, not every week. This is reality, not Brookside (to whose Ron Dixon the singer, now slimmed down, has lost his once-worrying resemblance).

Slogans and soundbites aren't The Beautiful South's style. Subtlety and wit are. Listen to "Don't Marry Her", an almost Morrisseyesque, and uncharacteristically radio-hostile, plea against the urge to wed: "Your love light shines like cardboard/But your work shoes are glistening/She's a PhD in 'I told you so'/You've a knighthood in 'I'm not listening'/She'll grab your sweaty bollocks/Then slowly raise her knee/Don't marry her, fuck me."

Then there's "Good as Gold", its fine atheist live-for-today sentiments carried along by a swingin' big band knees-up tune: "I want my love, my joy, my laugh, my smile, my needs/Not in the star signs or the palm that she reads/I want my sun-drenched, wind-swept Ingrid Bergman kiss/Not in the next life/I want it in this..."

See also the way they puncture male arrogance on "A Little Time" (a turning worm with a twist in the tail), and body fascism on "Perfect 10", a song which I tonight decide could almost have been written for Vegas-era Elvis, and I'm almost right (I later learn it was originally intended for Tom Jones). Even the new single, "Manchester", a Madness-ish bittersweet hymn to the rainy city in which Heaton now lives, wins me over in the flesh.

No question about it, The Beautiful South got me in the end. I just needed a little time to think it over.

s.price@independent.co.uk

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