Dexys Midnight Runners are a band who, in the minds of the majority, are a wedding party soundtrack; dungaree-wearing, “Too-Rye-Ay”-ing, one hit wonders, tied into the realms of pop obscurity.
This consensus becomes even more obvious from the baffled reception we receive when telling people we’re off to watch them play at The Sage. Well, subjectivity is all well and good, but these people are, objectively, wrong. Any baker-boy hat wearing enthusiast- and there are a lot of them knocking around tonight- will tell you that Kevin Rowland is one of the most sinfully overlooked yet covertly cherished figures in pop history. Their show tonight proves why.
Taking to the stage under a cloak of near darkness, a simple piano plays the first bars of ‘Now’ before Rowland’s unmistakable voice cuts through like a razor, steeped in memories of anguish, glory and ridicule. Expecting the kind of die-hard rapture and whooping adoration of a crowd that has endured all this along with him, it is almost alarming how lukewarm, on the surface at least, the reaction is.
It is more than likely that the demonstration of reserved affection is due to it being a sit-down show but set against our experience of screaming, hysterical displays at live gigs, it is still greatly unnerving to see such restraint in the face of – secretly- certified legends.
Dressed in braces, suits and shirts, the band (despite notorious line-up shuffles) show they are a tightly bound gang, in sartorial terms at least. Playing their new album One Day I’m Going To Soar in its entirety is a bit of a brave move but then as they’ve relentlessly proved, they’ve never been a band scared to take a risk. In a live context, the record truly comes to life.
Narrating uncertainty and self doubt in ‘Lost’ and ‘Me’; followed by the lust and yearning of tentative love in ‘She Got a Wiggle’ and ‘You’; to the struggle and heartache that comes with it, the album is a journey that one can imagine as a well-travelled road in Rowland’s own autobiography.
‘I’m Always Going to Love You’ and ‘Incapable Of Love’ see Rowland and Madeleine Hyland (the chosen heroine of the tale) in a dramatic heated exchange that propels the show into surreal, West End territory. They just about pull it off, although the choice of the much younger Hyland as a love interest seems a stretch of imagination too far.
The tale concludes with Rowland losing his girl alongside his self identity before he ends it poignantly with “It’s not the end of the world/And I know that I’m meant to be alone” in his last line of ‘It’s O.K, John Joe’. Throughout, he prowls the stage, as charismatic as ever.
After a crashing finale which is a glorious medley of strings, brass, keys and chanting- executed with the kind of glorious volume, energy and epic tone that parts of the show were somehow missing- Dexys leave the stage and return to an audience who have finally warmed up. They play a contemplative version of ‘Until I Believe In My Soul’ that culminates in a charmingly odd skit between Rowland and Pete Williams as a police officer, leading into ‘Tell Me When My Light Turns Green’.
‘Come On Eileen’ follows, as extraordinary a pop song as ever, alongside the barbed class commentary posing as a love song in ‘This is What She’s Like’.
Although the songs are knocked down a few paces and the atmosphere feels, bizarrely, rather muted, Dexys are still the spectacular band they always were. From the subject matter it seems Rowland paints himself as older, though no wiser, and plagued by the same self-defeating crises of confidence he always had. All this sung through a voice that is immeasurably emotive and conflicted, through a thousand different personae.
‘Working Class Hero’ is too limiting a tagline but is certainly a part of his persona, underscoring his passion. It’s easy to appreciate things in retrospect and realise quite how great they were, but romanticising the undervalued, ‘on reflection’, is too late a sign of respect. For many devotees Rowland is already a cast iron national treasure who’s owed his dues.
Neatly encapsulated in a line he amends from ‘Until I Believe in My Soul’, “Where’s my fucking prize?”
Dexys Midnight Runners played The Sage, Gateshead on September 17th Dexys Official