With the promise of a full performance of their first album in seven years, it’s easy to see why the long-standing fans of Dexys were queuing outside the London Palladium in the torrential rain long before doors opened. It would prove to be a phenomenal show by a group of mercurial national treasures…which would only arrive after a confusing hour of the entirety of the semi-autobiographical latest album The Feminine Divine. Those sixty minutes were either deeply introspective on multiple levels and show the shallowness of men who claim to embrace feminism in later life, or a cringeworthy cruise-ship pantomime of a first act, or an overly detailed insight into Kevin Rowland’s fantasies. It’s impossible to tell which interpretation of Birmingham’s Dexys’ act is correct. Perhaps all of them are, or none.
Dexys (Sandra Vijandi)
“I would do anything for you, my love,” croons Rowland in his red and white sailor suit, looking rather like Gene Kelly in Anchors Away. He directs his attention to Helen O’Hara, who’s bopping glamorously, women and mimes a fight with keyboard player Sean Read over her affection. After the ‘fight’, he talks it over with second keyboardist Michael Timothy in the first of many chats which frame his ‘coming of age’ narrative. “All that bravado ain’t you. Why are you doing it then?” Timothy asks. “Fucking good question…” responds Rowland before launching into It’s Alright Kevin. The disco beats of the song blend with the rest of the band acting as a greek chorus commenting on his post-toxicity psyche. We realise by I’m Going To Get Free that the soundtracked scenes take place inside Rowland’s own head. As the band rotate instruments and parts, we sit solemnly, aware that we are watching musical theatre rather than a show. The Feminine Divine becomes his confessional revelation that all women deserve to be put on a pedestal and worshipped. If he’s being ironic or playing a satirical character, then this would be a wonderful piece. If he isn’t, then he’s clearly developed a very concerning and self-critical mindset for which he seeks seventies brass-heavy absolution. Rowland gets into a relationship and monologues on My Goddess Is and Goddess Rules over eighties nightclub electro about how he worships his partner, which is the point where we learn altogether too much about his sexual preferences.
Just when we’ve reached the peak of confusion, the softly devotional My Submission displays Rowland’s full vocal range to a minimal piano accompaniment. It’s heartbreaking and tender and beautiful, showing how much Dexys are capable of…before he begins to monologue again about the bedroom activities he enjoys. We wander perplexed into the interval after the bass-thumping begging of Dance With Me, unsure what we’ve just witnessed.
However, the second half of the set, when Dexys are acting as a full band in unison rather than props for Rowland to exorcise whatever misogynist demons lurk within him, is astounding. They have a skill at stripping away the hype and baggage around their music and preserving a minimal, shining essence of that their music is about. Our cheers become genuine rather than merely polite as the stage burns scarlet for All In All (This One Last Wild Waltz). Their 1982 track is cursed into becoming a dark cabaret number and we relish every note. Free dips its toes into more self-justification, but maximises the band’s instrumental skills to make us rise to our feet.
Of course, most of the audience were here for Come On Eileen. The underlying joy and brilliance of their biggest hit shines brightly when revealed through such small arrangement. Photos of Dexys’ career are projected behind them, and there’s a poignant sense of the band’s own trajectory through the power of this song. Just as Rowland has reclaimed his own sexuality and relationship with women, so have Dexys reclaimed and restyled their own songs. Geno struts with its own brassy acknowledgement of its success. Removed from the dungarees and silliness, Dexys are one heck of a band. It’s their version of the traditional ballad Carrickfergus that hits the hardest, though. Rowland has an Edith Piaf fragility channelled through a folk song of a shared industrial past. It feels like we’re witnessing a farewell, but to leave behind such a moment as this song gives us is a privilege. We wonder why they didn’t play to their strengths the whole way through the show. While Jackie Wilson Said gets us back to our feet, with the now traditional photo of Jockey Wilson posted behind them as nod to the BBC’s error many years ago, it’s the longing of Tell Me When My Light Turns Green that Dexys leave us with. As old men looking back on their younger selves, there’s a poignancy that they’re still waiting for their perfect chance, forty years after they recorded the song.
Dexys (Sandra Vijandi)
Dexys showed us the best and worst of themselves over the same show. They are still capable of making interesting, powerful, idiosyncratic music that needs no hype to be enjoyed, but apparently they’re also capable of writing puzzling and misguided autobiographical sagas. The light they switched on in the eighties still burns brightly, but sadly has an awkward pink vaseline filter applied to it on their newer songs.
Review of Dexys at the London Palladium on 20th September 2023 by Kate Allvey