Kevin McGrath reviews Dexy’s Midnight Runnerslive atParc and Dare, Treorchy, an astonishing start to their UK comeback tour.
When writing the sleevenotes for Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ largely forgotten 1981 single, ‘Liars A to E’, Kevin Rowland issued a bold (his detractors might say pretentious) mission statement – ‘I have records that make me cry, truly precious possessions. It is the ambition of the Midnight Runners to make records of this value.’ Three years earlier, Rowland had experienced a moment of revelation when listening to Van Morrison’s seminal album Astral Weeks; ‘I hadn’t known music could express and mean so much. This was more than rock ‘n’ roll, it was genius.’ The rest, of course, is history. Rowland quit third rate punk band The Killjoys and formed Dexy’s – a band dedicated to playing and re-inventing classic soul music.
Their debut album, Searching for the Young Soul Rebels, featured a bare-knuckled brass section punching out hard-boiled riffs, honed to perfection, by a notoriously puritanical Rowland. It sounded as thrilling and essential as anything that had followed in the wake of the Pistols. Its successor, Too Rye Ay, echoed the sound of Morrison’s Caledonian Soul Orchestra and spawned the transatlantic smash, ‘Come on Eileen’, which had the distinction of knocking Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ off the top of the Billboard Charts.
Then came their 1985 album, Don’t Stand Me Down, and everything fell apart. Regarded now as something of a postmodern masterpiece, it was savagely reviewed at the time. Its titanic failure sent an already emotionally disturbed Rowland over the edge. Cocaine addiction, bankruptcy and homelessness followed. Years, decades even, slipped by. Two hapless solo albums, any number of aborted comebacks and record company bust-ups left Rowland a forlorn and forgotten figure – until now.
A remarkable 27 years on from the fiasco of Don’t Stand Me Down, Dexy’s are back with a new album, One Day I’m Going to Soar; its very title a re-affirmation that Rowland’s great obsession, to make music that is everlasting, consumes him to this day. There is a huge anticipation amongst his devoted followers as Dexy’s take to the stage at the Parc and Dare, for the first date of their UK tour, but there’s also an unspoken recognition that Rowland’s latest comeback, his last chance at redemption perhaps, may be a step too far. That fear manifested itself in a genuine outpouring of goodwill – sporadic shouts of ‘Go on Kev!’ were meant to offer support, but somehow only served to highlight the thickening tension. The standing ovation that followed the opening song, ‘Now’, a slow-burning lament that turned into a slick soul number halfway through, was an expression of sheer relief that the gig was actually happening at all. It was a genuinely emotional prelude to what was to be an astonishing show.
During the next two numbers, the starkly subdued soul of ‘Lost’, and its equally anguished companion piece, ‘Me’, it became evident that we were witnessing an inventively-staged piece of musical theatre. Rowland, kitted out like a fully paid up member of the Cotton Club, was absolutely mesmerising in the lead role. Flitting across the stage like a flyweight Jay Gatsby, underplaying with a hitherto un-guessed-at panache. There were dramatic set-pieces and Pinteresque pauses, with Rowland, head bowed, frozen in the spotlight for what seemed an eternity, before raging back into song. Band members popped up out of nowhere to share vocals, before disappearing again into darkness. When Rowland paced back and forth on the stage, muttering a stream of expletives, it was impossible to tell if he was still in character or about to pull the plug on the whole production. Suddenly, without warning, he was singing the saddest of ballads, ‘Thinking of You’, with breathtaking accompaniment on trombone from Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ stalwart, Big Jim Paterson.
The audience, completely unfamiliar with the songs, were swept along by the sheer bravado of it all and won over completely with the arrival of Shakespearean actress Madeleine Hyland for a pair of show-stopping duets. Sashaying on stage in a glimmering black dress, hands on hips, exuding the air of a fifties’ femme fatale, she had the stage presence to match Rowland’s. They performed an incendiary ‘I’m Always Going to Love You’, that ended with Hyland lying sobbing on the floor, and then the darkly comic ‘Incapable of Love’, before she vanished again into the shadows to rapturous applause. As duets go, this was more Shane and Kirsty than Tom and Cerys.
The set concluded strongly with ‘Nowhere is Home’, a further meditation on Rowland’s long struggle for belonging. ‘National identity won’t fulfil me,’ he declared with an air of defiance on a song which, on first hearing, even surpasses his previous take on the subject, the superb ‘My Life in England’. ‘Free’ was a first class, punch the air, soul-stomper showing that Rowland hadn’t quite lost his popular touch while the closing monologue, ‘It’s Okay John Joe’, offered confirmation that Rowland was attempting to cleanse his soul, right there, in broad daylight, so to speak.
The band encored with a slightly re-worked ‘Old’, and a joyous version of ‘Come on Eileen’, before returning with solid renditions of ‘I Couldn’t Help It If I Tried’, and ‘Liars A to E’. The planned finale though, an intended performance of ‘This Is What She’s Like’, arguably Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ signature song, was abandoned when Rowland, taking exception to some inapposite behaviour in the crowd, frogmarched his band offstage. Nevertheless, the UK premiere of One Day I’m Going to Soar was a personal triumph for Rowland. An evening that might have proved to be one man’s grand folly was, instead, an exhilarating, challenging and uplifting experience. It was more than rock ‘n’ roll; it was genius.