We need to talk about Kevin. Over the four decades since forming Dexy’s Midnight Runners, frontman Kevin Rowland has always sought to innovate, refresh and radically change the direction of the band. Kevin’s chameleon like desire never to bask in past glory or get complacent has seen him (literally) wear many hats through his Dexy’s journey. From hard Mean Streets bruiser to cool Celtic troubadour to sharp suited businessman with even some cross-dressing thrown in for his solo project – Kevin vents and Kevin reinvents.
The latest Dexy’s project is a celebration of women – The Feminine Divine – and tonight at The London Palladium it’s clear Kevin still doesn’t care for convention. Here, far from the sweaty clubs of the 1980s Kevin emerges in striped top, red jacket and sailor hat – like an extra from On The Town. He’s keenly applauded by an audience that has matured with him. Expectant fans hungry for the soul stomping classics, eager for a boho hoe-down. There’ll be no smattering of new songs interspersed with classics tonight though. For part one of the gig Kev launches into a playback of the new album whether people want to hear it or not. Strolling the stage with fellow band members the set is made up of three “acts”. Kevin playing himself on stage in various role plays or skits including macho posturing with the band during a mock fight over a woman. It’s an autobiographical journey of Kevin Rowland. Nine tracks of vocal interplay and theatre with Kevin finally emerging into what would be described back in the Too Rye Aye days as a “new man” – a bloke in awe of women, respectful of the ‘feminine divine’. In 2023, it’s really not a very radical concept and canny fans of the arty side of Kevin Rowland would recognise the sentiment from the belated classic 1985 album Don’t Stand Me Down, especially the stand-out epic This Is What She’s Like. Still, any attack on sexism and machismo has to be welcomed and Kev croons like he’s never been away. The curious amateur theatrics were viewed respectfully but there were several Palladium punters shifting uncomfortably in their seats or popping out for a pint. They should know by now though that The Feminine Divine will in time become another Dexy’s classic albums – the world just always takes a while to catch up with Kevin.
After the halftime break – not interval, that seems too inappropriate for a Dexy’s gig – the “Dexy’s classics” section of the show begins. The familiar strains of Soon from Too Rye Aye start, but where’s Kevin? Did the stage play earlier knacker out our newly septuagenarian hero? No, he’s now up in one of the exclusive boxes soulfully swooning away!
Like wedding guests waiting for the free bar to open and the disco to commence, there’s still an overwhelming feeling that many fans just want to hear the hits. More tracks from Too Rye Aye follow with a punchy Plan B segued with I’ll Show You. Still, the elephant in the room threatens to trumpet louder than the brass section on Dexy’s debut…come on Kevin! He’s in no hurry. We get calmer moments from Too Rye Aye including All In All and Until I Believe In My Soul. Kevin has warmed up well by now and is in very fine voice indeed.
Finally, via a convoluted violin intro the party piece begins. Come On Eileen bounces along in perhaps too familiar a fashion and the punters are happy. Ecstatic actually. After all, they just want their forty quid’s worth. I look around the Palladium and half-expect to see a cavorting bride and groom dancing in the aisles. My fear for Kevin Rowland is that Come On Eileen will be his epitaph with aged reporters lamenting his demise with that song soundtracking the grief. That would be a travesty. Kevin Rowland and Dexy’s are so much more than that but London doesn’t care for conceptual talky tracks tonight. Kev’s on a roll now. The foot stomping soul perfection of Geno soon echoes through the venue with Rowland embellishing it further with his own chant of “Geno Washington!” – simply sublime. Then the fervour threatens to froth over with the “boom boom boom boom” take on the Van Morrison song Jackie Wilson Said. Hilariously accompanied by a photo of darts legend Jocky Wilson in homage to the time when Rowland pranked Top Of The Pops and had the arrow thrower’s image displayed whilst they played.
Kev’s Celtic soul shines through on Carrickfergus with a moving vintage photo backdrop of him and his family adding a curious brevity to the party mood. Popular as the ‘wedding’ songs are tonight there just haven’t been enough songs from Dexy’s debut album Searching For The Young Soul Rebels. One of the most complete and perfect albums from the 1980s. Surely a live album playback of that classic record is long overdue for Kevin next time he hits the city. For now, ending with Tell Me When My Light Turns Green is as good as it’s going to get and after a couple of encores Kevin and the band are doing a runner. Kevin Rowland remains a hero. A legend. A misunderstood and uncompromising visionary. I suspect the fans streaming out into the rainy night were there for his Celtic soul, but it’s it’s young soul rebel heart that will always beat the loudest.