In the years since the break-up of his old band The Beautiful South in 2007 (they attributed the split to “musical similarities”), Paul Heaton has kept himself busy: he has recorded a couple of solo albums and bought a pub in Salford, Greater Manchester. But he missed his singing partnership with his old bandmate Jacqui Abbott, so he looked her up on Facebook and last year they started working together again. (Heaton in interviews has said variously that it was like discovering a beautiful vintage Rolls-Royce in the garage, or, perhaps less flatteringly, finding a beloved old Scalextric set in the loft.) Now the pair have released an album, What Have We Become, and to see and hear them back on stage together was a pure delight.
Not just because of the sweet music they made – their voices so rich and mellifluous individually and so well matched together, more than the sum of their parts – but also because Heaton, as you might expect from a pub landlord, is a terrific host: a natural storyteller and a sharp wit, he was fluent and funny and touching, talking about his family (his daughters and his mother were in the crowd) and his past with the same blend of sharpness and sweetness that characterises his songs.
The new album casts a typically caustic eye over the UK’s social and political landscape; delivered here with freshness and muscle by Heaton, Abbott and their four-piece band, the new material was strong, melodic and gutsy; the soulful “When I Get Back to Blighty” was particularly memorable, with its passionately sung closing refrain of “Phil Collins must die”. It’s worth mentioning, too, that – in contrast to the corporate nature of the modern pop experience, and in tune with Heaton’s leftwing beliefs – this tour is sponsored by the GMB trade union, whose posters adorned the venue.
Apparently forbidden to dance by his daughters, Heaton, wearing designer-casual gear – jacket zipped up to the neck, snappy trainers – shuffled his feet and made shapes with his hands; Abbott was largely static, but smiled with her mouth and her voice. Old favourites were revisited: “Old Red Eyes Is Back”, “Don’t Marry Her”. Among the encores, Abbott delivered a flawless, spine-tingling “Loving Arms”, the Tom Jans song made famous by Dobie Gray; and, finally, an a cappella “Caravan of Love” from Heaton’s days with The Housemartins. Warm and melodic, funny and smart, sad and uplifting: this was a proper evening’s entertainment.