See, many years ago there used to be this brilliant, weird, intense group called Dexy’s Midnight Runners, who started putting out brilliant, weird, intense records with loads of horn sections and soul keyboards on them, and cos it was the start of the 80s and everything was still a bit post-punk with the rules on what was allowable in the charts somewhat relaxed some of them got to be hits, and one of them even got to Number One…and then half the group walked out cos Kevin just got too damn odd and controlling, but that didn’t stop him growing his hair and dressing up in dungarees and eventually putting out some more brilliant, weird, intense stuff, this time with Irish jiggy fiddles on, and even though it was 1982 by now and everything had to sound plastic and crappy he still managed to get it on the radio, and scored another Number One with a song about a lady wearing a pretty red dress that went on to feature in every wedding disco ever.
By 1985 Kevin must have really been getting cocky as he must have thought he’d still get an automatic Number One from his third album even if he didn’t release any singles from it. This bold marketing strategy resulted in the critically lauded, brilliant, weird and intense Don’t Stand Me Down sinking like a stone, which was kind of a shame, given that the band had taken to trouble to get respectable haircuts and dress up in suits on the cover. And that seemed to be that for Dexy’s. Kevin scored a hit with the theme for a not very good sit-com, released a forgettable solo album a couple of years later and disappeared from sight for a decade before resurfacing with an album of cover versions called My Beauty which may or may not be brilliant, weird and intense – we’ll never know for sure, because the cover art depicting Kevin in a pretty red dress is so upsetting that no human being’s ever had the stomach to listen to it.
It’s now thirteen years on from what at the time seemed to be the most certain career killer in rock history, and Kevin’s back for another shot with a new album One Day I’m Going To Soar. For this he’s resurrected the Dexy’s brand, although he seems to have taken against apostrophes – the album’s credited to simply Dexys. He’s also touring, and last night I went to see him and his band at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge (curiously, the night before I’d been to the same venue to see another celebrated rock eccentric, the fabulous Patti Smith).
This turns out to be no ordinary gig. In fact, it’s not really a gig at all, more a full-blown example of musical theatre, with the new album being presented in order, in its entirety, with no interruptions for anything so facile as banter with the audience. The nine-piece band enter the stage in darkness while the opening section of the song (or overture, I guess, in this context) is being played and Kevin starts singing in his weird, but undeniably effective croon before you can actually see him which definitely builds suspense until the point where the song pauses, the band kicks in, the lights come on and the number gets jaunty – suddenly you can see everyone, and gracious, aren’t they all dressed up to the nines with the main man’s zoot suit, fedora and shades being particularly striking. This is most definitely not one of those shows where there’s not really much to look at: band members come and go for different songs, props and chairs are brought on by stagehands, at one point there’s a projector screen showing images of the ideal woman Kevin is directing his bizarre, but always heartfelt, declarations of love towards, and there’s loads of to-and-froing across the stage, principally by the singer and his faithful foil Pete Williams, who takes the role of sounding-board and confidant. The music is lush, and soul-influenced, while remaining surprisingly true to the original Dexy’s template given the decades long gap since the band last had product to promote, with the guitar relegated to a supporting role in favour of piano, organ, trombone and fiddle. These are pretty complicated arrangements, with plenty of variety in terms of dynamics and tempo, and they must have taken a lot of time to work out and rehearse, although there’s nothing difficult or inaccessible about the music from a listener’s point of view. The musicians and sound technicians even manage to overcome the generally awful acoustics in the Corn Exchange – frankly, it sounds brilliant.
But brilliant is but one part of the Dexys magic formula, and while the band play their hearts out you find it difficult to direct your gaze anywhere but towards the guru of weird and intense, the singular Mr Rowland. One Day I’m Going To Soar would seem to be some kind of concept piece about our Kevin’s ongoing conflicting feelings of loneliness, yearning, lust, fickleness and regret, and he certainly doesn’t hold back on his delivery, projecting his vocals so passionately that it’s almost enough to take your mind off his pencil moustache and Hawaiian shirt. He seems to really mean this stuff, although there are hints during the spoken word exchanges he has with Williams that there is some deadpan humour going on. A highlight is I’m Always Going To Love You, in which he brings on singer Madeleine Hyland to play the object of his affection, who we wins and then spurns, prompting an on-stage break-up, but the whole set is compelling, even though part of you is always worrying a bit about how healthy it is to be playing all this stuff out in a public forum. The band round the set off with a run through some oldies, though typically even these have been meticulously sculpted into a mini opera, with Until I Believe In My Soul forming a framing device for a version of Tell Me When My Light Turns Green and a strange and hilarious confessional sequence between Rowland and Williams dressed as a police officer. They don’t completely thwart the audience’s expectations though – they finish with an extended Come On Eileen, which gets the punters out of their seats and bopping in the aisles, before returning for a full-blooded take on This Is What She’s Like. Kevin’s undoubtedly a strange one, but he sure knows how to put on a fantastic show, and he thanks the audience and his band with a grace that you can’t imagine Van Morrison, for example, summoning up. There’s really no-one else around like him.