I’ve just gotten back home from a rug-cuttin’, hair-raisin’, down-gettin’ Friday night at the Merriweather Post Pavilion, “Nominated Pollstar’s ‘Best Large Outdoor Concert Venue’ of 1998.” I’ve looked at a couple of records in my basement with the paper’s photographer, talked with my wife about the toppings we want on our supper, ordered it, palmed a few Ghirardelli Chocolate Berryblues, checked my phone messages, and sat down to write. It’s not even 10:30 p.m.—very rock ‘n’ roll, no?
And whom do I have to thank for my curtailed evening of merriment? None other than Barenaked Ladies, the headliner of tonight’s double bill and the party likely responsible for the great act of cultural unification I have witnessed: The backward-turned-Abercrombie & Fitch-capped fratboy at last met the golf-shirted, pager-toting computer-consultant-at-play under the same tent. Ah, liberty. Ah, democracy. Oh, Canada.
Though we’d gone for the Beautiful South, touring behind its sixth album of new material, Quench, I had told Charles, the photographer, that I’d like to stay and catch a bit of the Great White North’s top novelty act. But when a check-panted dweeb who probably spent most of his youth with a meaty hand on the back of his neck and his nose mashed flat against a locker got a Nuremberg-rally response for interpolating a couple of lines of “Livin’ la Vida Loca” at the end of his first number, it was time to head for the parking lot.
Which was a lot farther away than you’d think. The line of cars waiting to get in had been so bad I’d considered getting out and walking, but the T-shirt vendors in the road had scared me off. Once at the gate, I looked at my watch: 8 p.m. “Maybe they’re still drinking,” I muttered.
Despite the Beautiful South’s rep for on-the-road piss-ups, Paul Heaton & Co. were prompt. Up hills like brown elephants we trudged, as some close-eyed, goateed celebrant turned from the bushes to announce, “They’re playing ‘Old Red Eyes.’”
I walked past the ticket-takers and the concessions placarded with Woodstock-riot-inciting prices and down the steps to my seat, Left B1—great spot. But, as Charles would later remark, “I didn’t know these were obstructed-view.” Planted foursquare between us and the stage was a stooge of the Contemporary Services Corp., a pudgy young gent with a proclivity to cast wistful glances at young female asses as they mounted the stairs. I stood.
Few other people were on their feet, even though the opening bars of “36D” elicited a respectable recognition cheer. One of the admirers was right behind me, screaming, “Paul! Paul!” as if it were 35 years ago and she had just spotted her chosen Beatle. Even though 1989’s “Love Is…” enjoins against such behavior, I kind of understood her overcompensatory shouting. American fans of the Beautiful South may get better seats than their U.K. counterparts, at least at headline gigs, but they have fewer opportunities to see the band, and they miss out on the chance to be part of something truly huge. In Britain, Beautiful South albums go to No. 1; Carry on up the Charts, a 1994 best-of, sold more slowly than only two records, Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Phil Collins’ …But Seriously. In Britain, Barenaked Ladies take the opening slot.
It’s easy to see why the Beautiful South might not make such a strong impression on this side of the Atlantic. Heaton’s band might be simply too British. If you can’t fathom why landlords would beweep a drunkard’s demise and don’t know from Rupert Check, PRS cheques, and Page 3 girls (the preferred sartorial patterning of a comic-strip bear, royalties from the U.K. equivalent of ASCAP or BMI, and tabloid pinups, respectively), you may have trouble navigating the lyrical turf of the Beautiful South and the Housemartins, the silver-tongued singer and acid-tongued writer’s previous band.
Americans need more than a glossary to cotton to the South; a temperamental affinity is also required. Americans generally believe in destiny, not fate—a prize deservedly claimed rather than a lot glumly resigned to—and Heaton is one of pop’s most fatalistic writers. In Britain, resignation comes with the territory; it inheres in the social structure. In the States, you have to earn it.
A group that traffics in what here might seem a perverse combination of lush, slick tunes and sardonic words can win mainstream adulation over there. There’s no transcendence in the Beautiful South’s sweet-and-sour blend; no evasion, either. Rather, there’s an earthy, clear-eyed embrace of the coexistence of hardship and vitality, of romance and regret, all shot through with a bullnosed acceptance of the pain and pleasure of perdurable lust. Would a U.S. band take as a viable pop subject the personification of a long-suffering table? Name the song “The Table”? Give it a sing-along chorus (“I’ve been sat upon, oo-ooh, I’ve been spat upon, oo-ooh/I’ve been treated like a bed/Been carried like a stretcher, when someone thinks they’re dead”)? Release it as a single off its latest album?
Now that Heaton has jettisoned the liberal Christianity of his younger days and taken up voting for candidates so left-wing they cannot win, his brittle protest songs (the Housemartins’ “Get Up Off Our Knees” and “The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death,” the Beautiful South’s “Have You Ever Been Away” and “Poppy”) have been traded in for odes to the things we’re stuck with. “The Slide” presents the trajectory of self-destruction as a playground attraction, Heaton singing a cautionary tale father to son, but how can anyone avoid being undone by something whose only lure is aspiration and only tool is gravity?
It may be that, as X sang, “the whole world loves a sad song they don’t have to sing,” but Heaton and his songwriting partner, guitarist David Rotheray, see no reason not to give the ones you do have to sing tunes you can dance to. In their hands, the anguished solitariness of the soul man meets the music-hall solidarity of the working class. Onstage, the South comes across as a hard-partying R&B big band, its six-person core (Heaton, additional lead singers Dave Hemingway and Jacqueline Abbott, Rotheray, bassist Sean Welch, and drummer David Stead) augmented by a keyboard player, a percussionist, and a three-man horn section.
Though Hemingway and Abbott are capable singers, Heaton’s is by far the most distinctive voice, spacious, with soft consonants and broad vowels. When he traded lines with Abbott on 1989’s “You Keep It All In,” it was hard not to miss Briana Corrigan, her predecessor, who left the band over the lyrical content of “Mini-Correct,” which Abbott eventually sang on 1994’s Miaow. In my mental catalog, Corrigan inhabits a great triumvirate of twangy, nasal female alterna-pop duet partners, backup singers, and occasional leads, along with sometime Silo Amy Allison and the Golden Palominos’ Syd Straw. The South shone brightest when its middle-of-the-road orchestrations supported a pair of mannered vocal iconoclasts.
Abbott and Heaton meld best when she pushes her slightly husky alto low and he his tenor high, as on Quench’s “Your Father and I.” By the end of Friday’s performance of the song, in which Heaton and Abbott exchange accounts of a child’s conception, his prettified, hers dyspeptic, Heaton was off-mike, jumping around wildly and pounding his tambourine until the jingles rained to the floor. Nine songs in, the musicians had won the crowd over. Then they were gone. No encore. It clearly wasn’t up to them. Four years ago at the old 9:30 Club, with Heaton visibly ill and Abbott pregnant and absent, they had played twice as long.
It was a case of music vs. commerce out in Columbia, and there was no way music was going to win. As a song off Quench has it, “Little heart, big coin.” We walked over dirt, grass, and gravel, passing by a couple of panicky guys who emerged from the bushes hoping not to see any cops looking to stomp on their buzz. The words that rose to mind were those Heaton had sung barely half an hour earlier: “Have fun/And if you can’t have fun/Have someone else’s fun/’Cause someone sure had mine.” CP