23rd September 2023 @The Bath Forum
I must confess that I am very much a latecomer to the 2023 “Feminine Divine” studio album, but as this meant there would be Dexys’ UK and Ireland tour – the first in nearly a decade! – the opportunity to review a gig of theirs at the Bath Forum was definitely one I could never pass up!
There have been moments when I have revelled in the ever-changing musical styles of this British-based group, with their number one hit “Geno” in 1980, their 1982 cover of Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said”, as well as their second number one hit “Come On Eileen” eliciting memories of my childhood. Even now, a tribute to the formerly-known “Dexys Midnight Runners” on BBC Radio 4 always sends me back to family walks in the park, my head still whirling with the opening chant of “Geno! Geno! Geno!”…it is true to say that the Dexys of the eighties have shaped many a happy memory for me, even as a zoomer.
While my musical taste may have somewhat altered away from the songs of my parents’ generation nowadays, Dexys have never failed to disappoint me in their helter-skelter ride to find their tune, as Kevin Rowland – the face of Dexys – displays genuine courage in exploring new genres away from what may be considered ‘mainstream’, whether it’s soul, Celtic folk, or new wave. It is then no surprise that the “Feminine Divine” album brings with it a complete shake-up, a characteristic of the band long since known to Dexys fans…how will they react to this turnaround?
While you may expect a sprinkling of Dexys’ greatest hits throughout the show, what you really spectate is two separate concerts. Dexys don’t hang around – anyone who walks into the Forum today may not have realised they have signed up for a theatre production, but that is what they get before the intermission. While thoughts of retirement followed Dexys’ 2016 album “Let the Record Show: Dexys Do Irish and Country Soul”, foreseeing a Dexys-less future that would leave only a legacy remembered by our parents, this pause for thought may have been the kickstart of a completely new image for Dexys, not only in its increased theatrical storytelling but also in its lyrical content. For those hoping for a return to the Dexys glory of “Too-Rye-Ay”, while the content of the new songs has started to take a dramatic U-turn away from the tough-guy routine expressed in his opening song of the night, “The One That Loves You” that Rowland originally wrote in 1991 during his battle with cocaine addiction, Dexys deliver on bringing forth the unexpected – the real signature of their music that can be seen through the band’s ever-changing soul.
The performance of the “Feminine Divine” album fits the bill on all accounts, presented as an engaging art piece on stage which immediately grabs your attention with its sheer eccentricity as it attempts to take each and every member of the audience on a journey with Kevin Rowland, each song providing insight into Rowland’s lived experiences, particularly his thought processes and reflections, wherein the title track “The Feminine Divine” presents a clear split with the past reflecting the poignant societal change in men’s attitudes towards women. Rowland’s honest revelations are hammered home as a partially spoken melody, marking both a notable change in Rowland’s views on women as well as a break with the traditional Dexys musical style, thus marking a new phase of Dexys’ music as deep, soul-searching odes to women dominate the second half of this album.
In an attempt to bring the album to life, violinist Claudia Chopek plays the part of the woman that Rowland admires in his songs, and to whom he devotes himself, recognising female strength and beauty as well as his own femineity in “My Submission” and “My Goddess Is”, reflecting the lessons Rowland himself learned through Eastern philosophical teachings in Thailand that explains his newfound reverence of women and shift away from toxic masculinity, as referenced in his songs. These small acted parts are conducted by the band members themselves, conveying a personal connection to songs and guiding the audience in fully understanding the thought processes between each revelation through visual aids.
While some may comment on the slight awkwardness of the acting and the unnecessity of simply walking around the stage, I choose to view such remarks as detracting from the piece of art that has been created to allow the story to progress. In some cases, it even provides comic relief, such as when keyboard player, Michael Timothy, comments on “My Submission”, asking “Kevin, what was all that about?”
Although the “Feminine Divine” album could be performed without these small inserts, I consider them unexpected but not overpowering – an ideal way to add texture and stimulate multiple senses during the performance. The key to a good piece of entertainment is to tell an engaging story, so what’s the harm in adding a little extra to accentuate what the artist is trying to say?
The first half of the show is, on the whole, effortless and well-performed. Even if you aren’t a fan of Dexys’ music, the raw emotion and honesty of this first half can be appreciated by all.
If you thought this was the end, try again. Our second concert of the evening is an absolute treat – a throwback session to conclude the evening with Dexys’ greatest hits, or the “old stuff” as Rowland puts it. Generations, young and old, can share in this feel-good experience!
Having listened to the Dexys classics many a time, no one can deny how talented Rowland is as lead vocalist, and he is fantastic live – it is always reassuring to discover more artists that don’t sing or play using vocal tracks during their performance. Forty years on, the “Too-Rye-Ay” album is still the stuff of excellent vocal skills, and Rowland’s voice has a certain clarity and soulfulness to it even now that I feel I’m transported through time to their performances during the eighties.
Surrounded by Dexys fans, I am humbled to see the number of fans bopping to the tunes – the party has really started. From “Until I Believe in My Soul” to the energising “Geno”, the crowd experiences Dexys through the ages in the space of about 50 minutes – a roller-coaster ride that leaves out none of the favourites and gifts to us a heart-stirring rendition of the Irish folk ballad “Carrickfergus” while pictures of Rowland’s childhood with his father are displayed on the screen behind him. This second half evokes memories for the audience and the band, with pictures of Dexys Midnight Runners generating nostalgia and saluting times past. My feet may hurt from standing in block heels but it is definitely worth it – this performance is simply sensational and the standing ovation confirms our appreciation of the story we have been told tonight as well as the thrill of the music that makes me wish for time-travel to be real to take me back in time to the exciting emergence of punk-rock bands.
All of us have something to take away from Dexys, no matter which phase of the band we relate to. The soul of Dexys is ever-changing, which brings with it the beauty of revelation, honesty and curiosity. While some may not catch on to Dexys’ most recent album, the raw expression and narrative style of the album is to be applauded, providing us with one of those special instances where reflection, development and lived experiences can be heard in each song. To me, Dexys’ music can never be considered ‘old’ but timeless, as it brings with it a unique perspective that all can enjoy due to its diverse and influential styles.
Photo creds @lams22