Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott at Stoke Victoria Hall

5 stars (out of 5)

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Paul and Jacqui promoThe first and most striking thing on arriving at Stoke Victoria Hall is the stunning stage backdrop – very 1930s Russian, very tractor target 5 year plan, very Heatongrad. Very Beautiful North, if you will. No. Didn’t think you would. Anyway. This stage backdrop, a thing of not inconsiderable beauty, was created by a gentleman from Stoke – a Port Vale fan – who Mr Heaton astutely observed wasn’t in attendance as like most Port Vale fans he probably doesn’t like to leave the house much. And the point I make is that with every utterance, with every word, inflection and gesture, you get the idea that yer man Heaton, he understands. He understands the workings of the world, The System, the relationships which are forged in the long shadows of our Northern industrial past, and the implications these have for people living in the Now. And for years he’s been one of our leading chroniclers of these and as a consequence has created a body of work which is both artistically and commercially pretty much peerless.

Entry to Russianesque martial music, which, if there was a Heatongrad, would be permanently bleating from roof–mounted speakers on a drab–looking tram system, and we get “Wives 1, 2 and 3”, “Pretenders to the Throne” and “Man Is The Biggest Bitch Of All”, the latter being from their outstanding recent offering “Wisdom, Laughter and Lines”. They play seven tracks from the latest album and, whereas rather too often with artists with a considerable ‘heritage’ the ‘new ones’ are tolerated rather than enjoyed, the tunes from the new album were deftly worked into the set and were received with interest and enthusiasm. About a quarter of the way through the set the first Housemartins classic, “Five Get Over Excited” – thundered through with great aplomb and fizz by the four eye–wateringly excellent musicians accompanying the two main protagonists. You have to say, despite previous incarnations and previous line – ups being far from untidy, both Paul and Jacqui appeared to be absolutely revelling in the support of possibly the best musicians they’ve ever toured with. And through the set I kept hearing odd echoes – bit of Joe Meek there, bit of Motown there, bit of The Hollies almost out of nowhere. All the best writers are magpies.

In amongst the inter–song raps, a shortened version of the story of “Rotterdam” – where he thought he’d lost the notes for 20 songs including the aforementioned. Turned up in his hotel room. And how expensive a loss would that have been? At the time of “Rotterdam”, virtually everything the Beautiful South turned out became instant FM radio gold – and they’ve remained so ever since. Rarely has a writer and musician had his finger so securely on the pulse of The Sound Of Things That Win; the sound of a nation. And along with “Rotterdam” there were plenty of those airplay giants in this set – “Prettiest Eyes”, “I’ll Sail This Ship Alone”, “Old Red Eyes Is Back”, and “Good As Gold, (Stupid As Mud)” were all rammed home with conviction and were enthusiastically received, especially the latter, the life–affirming lyrics never sounding better – and I include the original recording in making that statement. And I haven’t so much as mentioned the voices yet.

If he was just an unnaturally-gifted songwriter that would be enough, but he’s also a phenomenally powerful and original voice as well. And talk about Hold A Note; he is sooo precise. The phrasing, the sustain, the use of the mic for distance etc etc., he is a massively accomplished performer, which is I suspect for many, expertly disguised by his ambling gait, shambolic appearance and diffident manner (and how does anybody manage to perform as he does in a plastic waterproof jacket? And why?)

Paul Heaton as a solo vocalist would be more than enough to carry it but oh my goodness, with the added textures and harmonies of long-time collaborator Jacqui Abbott, it is all just too irresistible. Only parallel I could attempt to draw is Paul Simon is a damn fine writer and vocalist and you’d love to go and see him any day of the week. And would we prefer that served with Art Garfunkel?

Thought so.

And throughout the set she proved herself a fine performer in her own right as well and she was presented with ample opportunity in a set which required both, then one, then the other, to take centre stage.

And as ever with these things, compiling a killer finale is an absolute must to send everyone home grinning themselves to death. So we enjoyed “DIY”, complete with the geeky dance moves from Mr H., an exuberant “Happy Hour”, which couldn’t help but roll back the years for so many of the assembled multitude (had been a sell-out gig for ages), a funked-up 70’s-style “Perfect 10”, followed by an uplifting and unifying “Caravan Of Love” – then a short break for the crowd to go bonkers before the band returned to storm through a sort of dub version of “A Little Time” which, I am convinced if it had been released in that form would have actually been an even bigger hit than it was, the sublimely naughty “Don’t Marry Her” – and then a final breather before returning to an avalanche of large orange ‘The Prisoner’ – style balls, an explosion of golden glitter – and a dash through a fave from the latest album, the previously-mentioned “Heatongrad” and finally “You Keep It All In”.

There’s nothing wrong with it. Buy “Wisdom, Laughter and Lines” – if you haven’t already – and go out and catch this tour. Off the top of my head I can’t think of many British songwriters and acts which have access to such a body of work, are still producing stuff which stands up to that body of work today, are earth-shatteringly brilliant live – and are willing and able to perform in venues where you don’t need to remortgage your house or buy high-powered binoculars in order to enjoy it.

Five stars with a bullet.