Live Review: Paul Heaton / Billy Bragg – The O2, London 17.12.2022

Maria Escobedo

Words by Adrian Peel

Photos by Maria Escobedo

Though this was the last date of a Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott nationwide tour, the first inkling I got that Jacqui might not be appearing was when Billy Bragg (the second support act after Leicester’s Uncle Frank) mentioned Paul Heaton on a couple of occasions, which made me wonder, “Why is he saying Paul and not Paul and Jacqui?” (I hadn’t read the news reports).

And sure enough, when the seven members of the backing band (guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and a three-man horn section) came out on stage, they were accompanied solely by Heaton, former singer with The Housemartins and The Beautiful South, with no sign of Jacqui, who was part of the latter outfit, of course, from 1994 to 2000.

I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed that there was no Jacqui but Paul has had such an amazing career, and has given us so many wonderful songs over the years, that I felt everything would be all right. The band’s bass player and drummer tackled her vocal parts throughout with real enthusiasm.

Jaunty opening track I Drove Her Away with all My Tears, off Paul and Jacqui’s latest number one album N.K-Pop, certainly got the crowd in the mood for what was to come. After the second number From Under the Covers, a Beautiful South song taken from their debut album Welcome to the Beautiful South, Paul said, “I’d like to apologise for Jacqui’s absence – we wish her good health soon.” He then went on to announce that he and Jacqui were in the Guinness Book of Records for being the oldest male and female duo to have a number one album in the UK.

The first instantly recognisable Beautiful South song of the evening came in the form of the gorgeous One Last Love Song, and this slice of pop perfection was followed by Everybody’s Talkin’ and Old Red Eyes Is Back – all of which were hits for the much-missed collective who famously called it a day in 2007 citing “musical similarities”. 

I didn’t care much for the speeded-up version of the band’s sole number one single A Little Time but it was followed by another stunning ‘triple whammy’ of The People Who Grinned Themselves to DeathFive Get Over Excited and I’ll Sail This Ship Alone.

The first two were Housemartins tunes from back in the 80s and the second in particular was a real highlight (“Thank you very much for your rip-roaring response,” said Paul afterwards), while the third – by The Beautiful South – is one of my all-time favourite songs, and it was sung beautifully.

Indeed, Paul’s voice still sounds incredible and he looks quite a lot younger than his 60 years. He expressed his gratitude throughout to the fans for allowing him to enjoy such a long and rewarding career. “Thank you for 46 years of togetherness,” he said at one point.

More standout moments included Liar’s BarPrettiest Eyes and Manchester – further gems from the Beautiful South‘s awe-inspiring repertoire – and when it came to announcing the memorable 1996 single Rotterdam, Paul noted that it was perhaps the most difficult one on which to replace Jacqui as she’s so synonymous with the song. “But you’ll all help me out, won’t you?” he said.

The crowd certainly obliged, singing and dancing along – as they had done up until that point, though this time it seemed there were more phones in the air filming than there had been previously. Rotterdam was followed by Song for Whoever, the Beautiful South‘s timeless debut single – with the drummer expertly handling Dave Hemingway‘s part – and Think for a Minute by The Housemartins.

Paul and the band left the stage leaving the crowd singing the song’s refrain, before coming back out for the first encore. “This is an 80s dance classic from the Hacienda days,” said Paul before launching into the energetic Happy Hour, one of The Housemartins‘ best-known tunes.

The crowd then roared their approval when the keyboard player struck up the riff from Perfect 10, yet another Beautiful South classic. The band then left the stage once again, coming back out a second time to perform the uptempo You Keep It All In (Beautiful South) and the acapella Caravan of Love (The Housemartins).

Paul spoke of the latter song’s positivity and sought to convey that message to the fans. Despite Jacqui’s absence, this was a fantastic concert from start to finish, full of warmth, positivity, emotion, reflection, nostalgia and fun. 

Photos by Maria Escobedo

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