Of all the comebacks, reunions and collaborations to have taken place during 2014, Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott’s doesn’t only appear to be the most deserved, but also the one Britain didn’t realise it needed. For further proof look no further than the fact that What Have We Become? – their first album together since Abbott’s departure from The Beautiful South in 2000 – charted at #3 this May, only held off the top spot by new releases from Coldplay and Michael Jackson. Since then the duo and their band have toured the UK twice over to rapturous applause, including stops at the majority of major festivals; but as their first year back together draws to a close they are in the rare position of being a reunited act whose career should only grow from this moment.
What they have in fact become is unlikely national treasures, almost as if your best mates from the boozer had excused themselves, performed a Black Velvet style cocktail of gentle anarchy, banter, reminiscing and romance to a huge crowd, before returning to their bar stools for last orders. And with Paul Heaton’s songbook at hand, the stories are all favourites you never tire of hearing. Just as any act touring twice within a year should, the set has been shaken up, with What Have We Become? highlight ‘The Right In Me’ (“We’ll drink wine from the ashtray, lunch from the bin, that’s just the business in me”) and new single ‘Real Hope’ (a typically whimsical look at TV “talent” shows) added, alongside The Housemartin’s ‘Sheep’ and the long awaited return of The Beautiful South’s ‘Perfect 10’ (given a devious, deep grooved make over).
Elsewhere, the set is built from familiar and more recent covers (‘Everybody’s Talkin’’, ‘Lovin’ Arms’), songs to bounce to (‘Happy Hour’), songs to sing to (‘Don’t Marry Her’) and the newer songs to become favourites (‘D.I.Y’), each delivered impeccably by Paul’s rich, Morrissey-like moan and Jacqui’s cool, coarse and collected (and did I mention missed?), effortless tones. While she prefers to let the songs do the talking, Paul remains outspoken, delivering anecdotes regarding Gary Glitter, Pointless Celebrities and dad dancing in between songs. As much as this, just like any reunion, allows for celebrating the past, it’s clear that for Paul & Jacqui there is also work to do; Heaton’s words have never been shy of an honest opinion towards society, so it comes as no surprise that they are currently supporting the GMB as they put pressure on retailers not paying an acceptable living wage.
As the protest continues, however, the working class at least have their heroes to support them, to understand and to invite their mates to join in the jokes and sing-a-longs. Paul, taking water from his bag for life on stage, and Jacqui, photographing the crowd as if they were the main event and she was the spectator, are unlike most other acts who have sold as many records or ticket sales this year because they aren’t superstars. They’re super normal, performing extraordinary songs backed by a truly talented band – they deserve their success just as we deserve to be able hear them live again, and with live dates already lined up for 2015, their second year looks set to be equally as successful as this one. As a crowd of mixed up, middle-aged men and women leave the venue with smiles on their faces and sways in their steps, the real question is – What would we have become without their return?