The Old Soul Rebels

Kevin Rowland's legendary rabble-rousers make a triumphant live return

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Dexys Midnight Runners

ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL, LONDON

Monday November 10, 2003

Hearts in mouths as the lights dim; shouts of, “C’mon Kev! Testify!”relieve the tangible tension. Dexys supporters are passionately loyal: we are rooting for him. After the well-documented wilderness years, riddled with regret and ridicule in an unjust world, can he prove to be the comeback king? Can he kick it? Yes, he can.

By night’s end, Kevin Rowland is punching the air like a man who’s scored a last-minute World Cup winner. Family and friends are emotional, as is anyone with a pulse. How glorious that Dexys should rise again, still burning, a Lazarus with the lights turned green. And how accurately Rowland and his astonishing band have gauged this, bearing in mind some previous, catastrophic, instinctive decisions. The new calm, mature Kevin knows the songs say it all, yet moments of stagecraft and theatre, even comedy, raise this above a mere reunion show. And if he’s reasonable off stage, on it he’s ablaze, feeling it, dropping to his knees and wailing with soul, like the white-punk Al Green who made Dexys the most legendary of legends. You should’ve crawled on broken glass to witness this; a benchmark.

The choice of songs and pacing, the drama, is perfect. If the opening “Waltz”is tentative, we’re entranced by Rowland’s entrance, in shades, suit and a brown fur coat. Crooning alongside him, and shouldering much responsibility with fine voice, is Pete Williams, one-time bassist, now superb foil, jolly pixie-redcoat and eager cheerleader. Kevin has updated some lyrics; for “here is a protest”, read “this was my protest”. The Dexys band?some old, some new, Mick Talbot on keyboards?is a dream, from horns to violin. “The world’s changed, so why shouldn’t we?”asks Kevin. There are the expected goodies?a slower, sexy “Geno”, “Eileen” as a rabble-rousing finale (“21 years since I sang this song/Wanna right that wrong”), a soaring “Precious”?and some cult choices, like “Old”, “Liars A To E” (the line “you’re the voice of experience”carrying extra pathos), and a tear-jerking “Couldn’t Help It If I Tried”. The new songs, “My Life In England”and “Manhood”, are instant classics, and one encore, The Commodores'”Nightshift”, is a baited-breath moment only Dexys could pull off.

I could write books about the medley of “Until I Believe In My Soul”and “Tell Me When My Light Turns Green”, wherein the spoken ‘confession’ scene is re-enacted. Rowland tells Williams’police officer he’s been “burning”. When did this incident take place? “’71 to ’93.” What were you thinking? “I dunno.”Long pause. “I dunno.”And, as the believers around the hall holler, “What’s she like?”, it begins. “This Is What She’s Like”, in all its upward-spiralling holiness, performed with skill and sweat. Kevin interrupts with, “These days I wouldn’t get so worked up about people with creases in their old Levis”; the a cappella section and world’s greatest “1-2-3-4!”moment are so right they scar your skin. You’re exultant that Rowland made it back over the bridge, and honoured that you saw the rebirth.

There’s only one ending happy enough, and of course as appropriated by one godfather (Rowland) from another (the film), it’s: the Italian word for thunderbolt, or something like that.

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