Here’s a review originally published on Louder Than War.
“What did you make of that then?” asks Paul Heaton. It’s the first night of the tour for his soul opera ‘The 8th’, following a brief run at the Manchester International Festival last summer.
The show is many things. The seven deadly sins expressed through song, with an additional eighth. An exploration of human failings, cruelty and fate. Fundamentally, it’s a grand, bleaker evolution of the ‘garage gospel’ pioneered in his Housemartins days.
The focal point is Reg E Cathey’s “007 agent of the Lord” preacher. From a pulpit, he delivers a tale of crime, confession and bittersweet redemption. Haunted by the ‘strawberry-type birthmark’ of a man he shot dead, it’s a life of prison, police brutality, and thwarted love.
Scripted by playwright Che Walker, it’s an engaging narrative that weaves in familiar Heaton themes of social justice and love. Fitted up and forced to betray his lover’s son, the Reverend finds himself the victim of the kind of schemes employed by the FBI against civil rights activists in the 60s.
The theatrics are relatively sparse. It’s Heaton’s regular touring band who are the backbone of the show, augmented by strings and stabbing synths. Joining them is an eclectic cast of singers, taking on a sin each, with Heaton revealing the eighth.
They’re onstage throughout, wearing masks that are thrown aside after they’ve sung their part. From the jagged soul of ‘Lust’ to ‘Gossip’s rousing ska, there are many high points in this collection of songs. ‘Envy’ is a particular standout. Unmistakably Heaton/Rotheray in its construction, it’s also a welcome return to the stage for former Beautiful South singer Jacqui Abbott.
If there’s a downside, it’s that we don’t hear enough from Heaton himself. He joins Steve Menzies stately rendition of ‘Blackbird on the Wire’ to begin the ‘hits’ set of the second half, but for much of the set he’s happy to simply play compere. He’s said recently that anxiety over the range of his voice is a factor. At the same time, a man who’s just completed a 50-date UK tour by bicycle might have earnt the occasional rest.
There’s a genuine warmth onstage. The ensemble pitch in with backing vocals on most of the songs, fiddling with the mics to make sure everyone can make themselves heard. Heaton pays a cheeky tribute to his “stalker” – superfan Gareth Paisey – who steps up to perform ‘One Last Love Song’. The Los Campesinos! frontman delivers one of the strongest performances of the second half, all the while looking like he can’t believe his luck.
Simon Aldred’s solo performance of ‘I’ll Sail this Ship Alone’ is spellbinding, while Wayne Gidden’s ‘Dumb’ is anything but – a soaring, affecting rendition. Heaton takes back the microphone for two brand new songs (“ written for next year’s album…”) revealing they’re intended for Abbott. ‘Some Dancing to Do’ shows the Heaton falsetto in remarkably good shape.
Abbott rejoins him for a powerful version of the Housemartins’ ‘Build’, and a still-grinning Paisey too for an unrehearsed ‘Me and the Farmer’ to end the night. While it’s hardly been a night of living off past glories, it’s a fine way in which to end.