Marc Burrows catches a Paul Heaton two-parter at The Barbican, and finds the Ex-Housemartins man on fine form
The Paul Heaton songbook is so stuffed with Kitchen-sink pop drama that his turn to the theatrical was always going to happen. For this is “The 8th”, a single hour-long musical piece which may or may not be an opera (or “rock gospel” or “popera” according to the man himself), featuring the traditional seven deadly sins represented by vocal turns from seven different singers, with Heaton as the newly-added “8th”, linked with narration from The Wire’s Reg E Cathey. And if all of that sounds a wee bit heavy and worryingly indulgent on paper, we’re promised a second half of career-spanning Heaton-hits to sweeten the deal.
As a piece of theatre it’s sometimes very compelling - especially when Cathey’s imposing narration gathers pace - and sometimes pretty impenetrable. As a suite of songs though, it’s pretty great. Heaton himself takes centre-stage only once, but his thumbprints are on every number, so much so that half the singers end up doing a Stars-In-Their-Eyes version of him anyway, albeit a very good one (step forward Los Campesinos!’s adorably star-struck Gareth Paisey). The hand-picked guests all deliver the goods one way or another, though the best are those that step out of the one-time Housemartin’s shadow, notably country singer Mike Grieves (“he’s got a voice like an Oak tree,” Heaton will later claim) and soul boy Wayne Gidden. Most welcome is former Beautiful South singer Jacqui Abbott, whose lovely and expressive voice has more experience than most in interpreting Heaton’s songs. The whole thing comes to a head on the redemptive 'Walk Into The Light', Cathey’s manic street preaching particularly effective over a choral backdrop that sounds, unavoidably, a little bit like 'Caravan of Love'. Magic.
A quick interval (this is theatre you know) and the troupe take the stage once more, now swigging the occasional beer with the air of tie-loosening after-work-drinks. Five years after dissolving the Beautiful South over “music-similarities” (their albums had all started to sound the same), Heaton’s clearly not over-fussed about doing the promised “hits”, singing only one ‘South song himself, opener 'Blackbird On A Wire'. Instead he leaves it to the assembled guests. Superfan Gareth Campesinos! does a fair 'One Last Love Song', visibly awed when Abbott comes in with her old harmonies, and Giddens finds a gospel heart hitherto hidden in 'Dumb', but the show-stopper is Cherry Ghost’s Simon Aldred’s stunning acoustic 'I’ll Sail This Ship Alone'. Jaws drop. It’s amazing. Heaton himself acts the reliable club compere, introducing the songs VH1 Storytellers-style, as he brings each act back to the mic. Delightfully, Jacqui Abbott’s much-missed voice is on almost every song - if nothing else coaxing her out of retirement justifies the whole palava. Our host takes vocal duties for two newies, both very good, before retiring once more. Bittersweet classic follows bittersweet classic; some suffer slightly for Heaton sitting them out, but most are so treasured and durable Napalm Death could cover them and they’d still enchant your Grandma. There are those who will bemoan the lack of the biggest hits (What, no 'Song For Whoever'/'Perfect 10'/'Happy Hour'/[insert favourite here]?) but as the night climaxes with a thumping run through the Housemartins’ 'Me and The Farmer' you can’t help but think Paul Heaton has earned the right to try pretty much anything he likes.