Sunday, 20 March 2016

Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott - Droll Masterclass in Exquisitely Realised British Pop - First Direct Arena, Leeds, 19.03.16

The pre-show build-up at Leeds’s First Direct Arena for Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott is a quirky affair. Dream-folk covers of Springsteen songs drift across the PA as images of Esther Rantzan, Chief Wiggum, and various footballers flash on large screens on a two-minute loop. There is no discerning theme to it; but then perhaps, that’s the point, the showreel an allusion to the attention span of modern culture. It’s clever, wry and acerbic; much like Heaton’s own musical sensibilities.

It’s been an impressive comeback for the Sheffield-raised singer-songwriter. The Beautiful South disbanded in 2007, citing “musical similarities”, and Heaton’s subsequent work has never really troubled the charts. But his 2014 reunion with Abbott brought him arguably unexpected commercial success, prompting multiple sell-out tours in increasingly larger venues. This sold out show is a significant step up though; having toured medium-sized venues only previously, this is their debut arena show. With the pressure of their biggest headline gig to date, a few errors could be perhaps expected and forgiven.
Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott perform live on
TFI Friday in 2015. (Courtesy of Zimbio)
Instead, they sound and perform flawlessly, delivering a droll masterclass in exquisitely realised British pop. Heaton is probably one of the country’s finest songwriters, his genre-straddling compositions woven into the cultural tapestry, and the setlist draws from all of his musical eras. Opener Wives 1, 2 & 3, taken from his and Abbott’s second album Wisdom, Laughter and Lines, is filled with the darkly humorous lyrical insights into normal life that are his bread and butter, wrapped in a lithe, shuffling pop number. The Queen of Soho is built on Sixties-flavoured guitar that was probably never paired with tales of drag queens back then. The Horse and Groom delves into Killers-esque heartland-synth-rock, complete with cowboy metaphors. Older track Pretenders to the Throne is joyous in its melody, riding upon stirring piano, whilst the musically-sunny, lyrically-downbeat Old Red Eyes is Back feels like an inappropriate celebration. Heaton has a gift for tapping into the public consciousness and it serves his songcraft resplendently.

“It’s odd that there’s so many people here,” he comments, visibly surprised, whilst thanking the crowd for coming, before he namechecks the local Jumbo Records and makes a quip about “deleting browsing history”. Though not a natural showman at first glance – stood behind a lectern, dressed in glasses and steel-grey cagoule, possessing the air of a bemused teacher on a field trip – his savvy delivery is bursting with its own charm that lends itself to his performance, particularly on Housemartins cut Anxious. Vocally, he is faultless, his voice well-preserved and mellifluous; his beautifully affecting rendition of I’ll Sail This Ship Alone prompts a standing ovation that is only cut off when the band starts the next song.
Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott perform in Hull
in 2016. (Courtesy of Ian Rook)
Abbott only speaks on occasion but as the co-performer of some of pop’s most enduring creations, she lets her vocals do the work. Silky-sweet with a bitter venom underneath, she offers a perfectly-harmonised counter that snakes around Heaton’s own voice, such as on the achingly beautiful Prettiest Eyes and the jaunty Good as Gold (Stupid as Mud). When she steps up to the plate solo, she nails it too, conveying resigned loneliness superbly on Sundial in the Shade, and the gentle ebb and flow in Rotterdam as glitterball lighting illuminates the auditorium in kaleidoscopic refractions. Neither vocalist is flashy, though the latter does “dad-dance” throughout; but they remaining captivating performers who command attention.

The last forty-minutes is a near-total hit-storm; the punchy power-pop of Happy Hour, a radically-recast Perfect 10, transformed into a driving rock anthem, and the acapella Caravan of Love close the main set, the latter spine-tingling as ten thousand voices join in unison to form the backing for Heaton’s soulful delivery. A double encore follows; first, a cod-regaee take on A Little Time and Don’t Marry Her, complete with large inflatable beach balls descending from the rafters, before they return to deliver the Soviet-influenced Heatongrad. They finish off with You Keep It All In, signalling an outbreak of dancing in the aisles as gold confetti cannons erupt stage-side. As Heaton and Abbott wave farewell, they both blow kisses to the crowd. After such a wonderful live performance, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll be saying a permanent goodbye any time soon. 

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