When Kevin Rowland stepped from his golf cart to survey the mud enveloping this year's Green Man festival, he could have been forgiven for fearing the worst. Last time the eccentric Dexys frontman paraded his deeply personal music and unique sartorial style at a major UK festival, it ended with an uncharitable dousing in the brown stuff.
Rowland's intimate take on the covers album, My Beauty - beautifully sung that fateful afternoon at Reading in 1999 - is only starting its journey towards critical rehabilitation (Tim Jonze's excellent defence of the record in the Guardian recently would have reminded fans of Chris Roberts's reappraisal of Dexys' similarly misunderstood Don't Stand Me Down). But, although One Day I'm Going To Soar, Dexys' first album in 27 years, is similarly stark, confessional and melodramatic, there was no danger of a pelting from the Glanusk Park crowd.
One Day I'm Going To Soar, Dexys' first album in 27 years, is...stark, confessional and melodramatic
Scarcely can such a meticulous - even theatrical - live show, based around new material have been so warmly received by a festival crowd (for whom conventional wisdom dictates you shut up and play the hits). Sun-reddened baldies shimmied in the mud; cider-soaked Welsh teens cheered Rowland's potty mouthed asides; while the stagey psychodrama of Incapable Of Love, in which Rowland trades Meat Loaf and Cher-style barbs with Madeleine Hyland, was greeted with the gasps and knowing laughter you'd expect from an Alan Ayckbourn audience.
This week, Rowland takes Soar on a much-deserved victory lap around the UK's middling-sized venues. The Stone Roses' summer return may have stolen all the headlines, but their media silence and mere hints at new material suggest a band at a creative dead end. In contrast, the reconstituted Dexys have unveiled a genuine album of the year contender and - unusually for Rowland - a willingness to reconnect with the media, and put their unexpected comeback into context.
Like Don't Stand Me Down, the record features Rowland - born in Wolverhampton to parents from County Mayo - wrangling with his Irish heritage. During Nowhere Is Home he exhorts: "Take your Irish stereotype and shove it up your arse", while Lost features Dexys bassist Pete Williams adopting the guise of Kevin's father, telling him bluntly "It's time you stopped the dreaming and faced up to reality". In the live show, he even wears a mac and flat cap, standing impassively behind his tortured, seated frontman.
The reconstituted Dexys have unveiled a genuine album of the year contender
Rowland's beef with his background appears two-pronged: he grew tired of putting on a tough front ("I didn't come from a culture where you said you were finding things hard," he told the Guardian in June. "It was a vocabulary that didn't exist."). He also, if the lyrics to Free are to be believed, felt trapped by the expectation to have kids ("They say all good men raise a family, yeah? That's not what I see/ In truth some of them don't seem so happy/ They tolerate their misery/ That is not for me").
Rowland deals with Dexys' first flush of fame with similar frankness on Me, singing, "I'm gonna be someone/ Then no-one can put me down cos I will be number one", before digressing into the kind of internal monologue that made My Beauty so compelling. He appears to be at a showbiz party, telling himself "Cor, this is alright, I like this", before dissolving into self-doubt: "Is this it? It's empty, man. There's nothing here". The new-look Dexys do acknowledge their past - there's room in their set for an extended take on perennial wedding favourite Come On Eileen - but Rowland remains determinedly anti-nostalgia. "I told my manager, we're not going to do a Greatest Hits show," he told Holy Moly recently. "Were not even building towards that. I don't see a time when we're going to be doing that.
Such candour runs right through One Day I'm Going To Soar, making those duets with Hyland on I'm Always Going To Love You and Incapable Of Love a difficult listen, despite Dexys' typically rambunctious brass and strings. "I didn't shirk from anything or leave anything out I thought would be uncomfortable," he told the Guardian. "It's a story but like any story it has to have elements of my life in it."
Rowland had a reported 13 arrests before Dexys Midnight Runners appeared on Top Of The Pops
It's certainly been a life packed with incident: Rowland had a reported 13 arrests before Dexys Midnight Runners appeared on Top Of The Pops ("God knows how I avoided prison, I must have been blessed," he told Metro); led the band through acrimonious sackings, team-building fitness regimes, fights with journalists, and stealing their own master tapes; before facing the ignominy of a Sunday newspaper exposé claiming that he was homeless and begging on the streets ("squatting" and "poncing" is how Rowland remembers it). Then, having fought off cocaine addiction, there was the My Beauty episode, his much-trumpeted signature with Creation Records resulting in an album that sold just 700 copies and a heart-rending festival appearance that's gone down in Reading lore.
All of which must make Dexys' unexpectedly triumphant return all the sweeter. While Rowland still cuts an anxious, questioning figure in interviews, onstage he appears to be enjoying both performing - there's plenty of matey stagecraft with Williams - and receiving the genuine warmth of his audience. "I don't show much of myself in life but in my music I put it all in there," he concludes on the spoken-word note-to-self album closer, It's OK John Doe. Long may he soar.
Dexys are touring the UK until September 25
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