Live Review: Paul Heaton + Billy Bragg, OVO Hydro, Glasgow – 2nd December 2022

I had intended to open this review by noting that, for me, this would be the second in a row of male / female vocal acts I’d reviewed for AUK (after War and Treaty back in June) but doctor’s orders had led Paul Heaton’s co-star Jacqui Abbott to stand down for this gig, along with several others on the tour, so that put paid to that. The aura of Abbott was never far away tonight, however. Heaton announced that the pair had been recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest vocal duo to hit number one in the charts with their recent album ‘N-K Songs’, much of which was featured tonight.  Heaton has now been involved in at least five UK number one albums.

In Heaton and Bragg, we have two wry lyrical songwriters who both came to the fore in the mid 1980s. Neither chose to keep their left-wing principles out of their song writing and it was often the lynchpin in their live shows. For this tour, in the midst of the cost of living crisis and to counter the general sense of greed when it comes to large scale shows, Heaton decided that maximum ticket price for this pre-Christmas tour would be £30, which for an arena gig with a nine piece band is pretty good value (in comparison Roxy Music’s recent top priced tickets in similar venues were £700).

Billy Bragg played at the last live UK Americana Awards in Hackney in 2020 and is no stranger to these pages. After a Lockdown spent recording local to his home on the south coast with Romeo Stodart among others he’s fully back on the road. The outcome of those recordings was the 2021 album ‘A Million Things That Never Happened’. This is his third gig in Glasgow this year and he opens with ‘Greetings to the New Brunette’ with its “Oops there goes another year” refrain, and I reflect on things I planned to do back in January still undone today.

The influence of Woody Guthrie is no doubt one of the factors that makes Bragg popular in Americana circles. He talks about an unfinished song that Guthrie wrote about the Clyde. Bragg discovered the song lyrics among an old stack of Guthrie’s writings when he was given permission to view archives by the family. He doesn’t cover that song tonight but does play ‘Way Over Yonder In A Minor Key’ from the ‘Mermaid Avenue’ album that he recorded with Wilco. Bragg thanks the audience for listening; hinting that some of the earlier dates were not so accommodating. In fact he explains he has had a day long Twitter beef with an audience member from last night’s show who suggested he should not discuss politics at his gigs!

The guitar troubadour puts himself out of his safe place for one song where he stands empty handed at the mic with simple piano accompaniment for a soulful performance of ‘I Will Be Your Shield’. A pin drop moment sees the auditorium steadily filling, drawn to the great acoustics that this hall has afforded the three-piece band. From my vantage point in the dear (£30) seats there are easily 10,000 people watching, hushed. Next , he yells, “This one’s for all the nurses , teachers – AND the Starbucks workers and the Amazon workers” over the intro of ‘There Is Power In A Union’ and gazes over the sea of raised hands. The time constraints of the support slot mean there are some omissions. The magnificent ‘Ten Mysterious Photos That Can’t Be Explained’ from the latest album and ‘A New England’ are casualties of setlist edits, but clearly Bragg’s songs old and new have enthralled this Glasgow crowd.

Paul Heaton’s songwriting was recognised at the Ivor Awards 2022 “Outstanding Song Collection’. In other words, Heaton has penned a lot of good songs and he has sold some 15 million albums in the process. For all this, he comes on stage  looking slightly self-conscious, acknowledging Bragg’s assistance in The Housemartins’ early career (helping them get gigs in London in the mid 80’s) and thanking the audience for “turning up” (refunds had been offered due to Abbott’s absence – but with little uptake). They start with ‘I Drove Her Away With My Tears’ from the new album, an immediate stage favourite with Heaton name-checking cities in UK and their individual expressions for “crying.” The mention of Glasgow’s amiable “have a good greet” gets a cheer of course. In the absence of Jacqui Abbott, various members of band had to pitch their ability to sing her parts, taxing their vocal chords at least half an octave above their comfort register. We hear this first on ‘Too Much For One’. It has a Nina Simone-like (‘I Wish I Knew How….’) driven piano riff intro, Heaton sings the verse as normal, and the bassist then steps up and delivers Jacqui’s lines. He is surprisingly good.

Like Bragg, Heaton expresses his genuine appreciation that people are actually paying attention to the show and he jokes that perhaps at some of the earlier gigs the cheap ticket price had turned the gigs into pre-Christmas raves. The hits kept a’coming, muddying the line through The Housemartins, The Beautiful South, his solo work and of course the duo with Abbott.  The clever arrangements of the band (guitar/bass/ keys/three piece horns and drums) make it sometimes difficult to remember their origin. Like when they turn ‘A Little Time’ into a driving power rocker a la ‘Silver Machine’ meets ‘Radar Love’. They are also clearly a band of accomplished background vocalists and this comes in to the fore in the harmonies in the superb ‘Think for a Minute’ and, as a closer, a rendition of The Housemartins’ inspired acapella version of the Isley’s gospel R&B ‘Caravan of Love’. And, it is with this as my soundtrack that I leave the Clydeside venue slightly early and hurry across the bridge hunched against the chill of a cold December night to catch my train.

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