LIVE: Paul Heaton (+ Billy Bragg), O2 Arena London

Walking into the O2 Arena on Saturday, we quickly realise that a) there is a distinct demographic for Paul Heaton’s show, and b) we were not it. Although he has continued to record and release music up to and including this year’s excellent N.K-Pop release with Jacqui Abbot, it is for his 80s and 90s work with The Housemartins and The Beautiful South that he is most famous. Correspondingly, the audience consists mostly of people coming out for the night to relive those decades, and in some cases dragging their reluctant teenage children along to do the same.

First up is special guest Billy Bragg, splitting his set between the ‘one man and a guitar’ tunes he initially became famous for and the more fleshed out full band work that has typified much of his more recent material. Although the latter is the stuff I less regularly reach for when listening to him, it works really well in this instance. Supported by a great backing band, including a pedal steel guitar player and at one point his own son on backing vocals and guitar, he marches through rousing, widescreen performances of songs like ‘Sexuality’ and ‘Waiting for the Great Leap Forward’. But it is when he picks up his electric and runs through solo renditions of Levi Stubbs’ ‘Tears’ and ‘There Is Power In A Union’ that he particularly shows his qualities as a performer and songwriter.

If Bragg garners a polite reception from the crowd, then Heaton is treated like visiting royalty. A huge cheer greets his arrival on stage and doesn’t fully abate until the second of two encores is finished and the house lights are switched on at the end of the evening.

This was due to be a joint show with Jacqui Abbot, but she was forced to withdraw earlier in the tour due to illness. On the opening song ‘I Drove Her Away With My Tears’ – one of a number of tonight’s songs drawn from Heaton’s post-Beautiful South partnership with Abbot – Heaton seems a little reserved. The levels aren’t quite sorted at this point and the band haven’t yet hit their stride. Although there is nothing wrong with the performance, I worry that the rest of the set will feel noticeable for Abbot’s absence.

Fortunately, and with the greatest respect to her, this suspicion disappears with every subsequent song as Heaton grows in confidence and the band lock into a fearsome groove. ‘Too Much for One (Not Enough for Two)’ from the latest album is as good as anything Heaton has written and, by the time they launch into their cover of ‘Everybody’s Talkin’, it is clear we are in very safe hands.

From there on in, Heaton and his band charge through what is an absolutely astonishing back catalogue. Whether it is the Beautiful South, Housemartins or solo material, there is no dip in quality. Abbot’s parts are performed by other band members (and even Heaton himself on ‘Rotterdam (Or Anywhere)’) and while they in no way replace her, they bring enough energy to the performances for them to work. The backing band are exceptional – tight as anything and bringing a flair and joy that lifts every song. The three piece brass section do a particularly good job of bringing a bounce and swing to the material.

Heaton himself, and particularly his voice, is the glue that holds it all together, though. At odds with his low key, diffident patter between songs, his singing voice is rich, emotive and huge. He inhabits these songs and fills them with character. Singing some of these songs almost 40 years after they were written, he makes them sound as fresh as they do on record. He is also an oddly engaging frontman, even on the stage of the cavernous O2. At times he sings eyes closed at the microphone, immobile, at others he unclips the mike and dad dances across the stage with joy. It is a masterful performance, and suggests that he is one of the more unheralded voices in British pop. I’m sure, though, that he probably likes it that way.

The band finish with two encores, and who can blame them? By the time they get to ‘Rotterdam’ and ‘Song for Whoever’ at the end of the main set, the already feverish audience response has gone stratospheric. The first encore brings ‘Happy Hour’ and much of the arena (if not the reluctant teenage children) to its feet. The second finishes with a spine-tingling acapella performance of the Housemartin’s classic ‘Caravan of Love’ which sees the whole audience join in. its message of unity and optimism is a great way to round off what has been a phenomenal evening.

Words by Will Collins

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