Deacon Blue @ Symphony Hall, 4th December 2018

At the risk of making myself very unpopular, I have to present a review that contains many contradictions and criticisms.  The thing is, Deacon Blue have a special place in my heart, but simultaneously irritate the pants off me; they’re like an old school friend or mad old uncle, that you love… but only in small measures.  Having endured and enjoyed their mammoth two and half hour show at Symphony Hall, it is only the day after that I fully appreciate the performance.  Stuck in the middle of that set and surrounded by their euphoric fans, I could not for the life of me understand why they generate such adoration.  The thing is, without ever writing a song with a genuinely decent chorus, they have sold bucket-loads of albums, and had a number of hit singles; normally based on a hook that isn’t in the chorus.  This isn’t normal practise: successful bands write good choruses, not just a “Woo oo woo oo woo oo woo oo” in the intro alongside a guitar hook.

When I first heard Deacon Blue in 1988, I tried to get tickets for their show at Birmingham’s Powerhouse, but was too late, as it had already sold out.  When they returned to Birmingham in September 1990, they were riding high on the bigger success of their second album and played the NEC.  I was given a ticket and watched that show with the exact same feeling I did 30 years later… why did this band appeal to the mainstream and become so successful when similar, better Scottish bands of the mid-to late-80s only maintained a smaller cult following (for example, Aztec Camera, The Big Dish; Danny Wilson; Hue and Cry; Del Amitri; and Love and Money).  Why have Deacon Blue actually been the Crimson Tide all this time (that’s the name for the winners in the world)?

I believe it is this: they appeal to both those of us who have a serious interest in music (in part due to their knack of writing unconventional pop songs not unlike heroes Steely Dan) and also those with only a passing interest in music, who may be simply hooked in with a “Woo oo woo oo woo oo woo oo”.  Moreover and more importantly, they were one of only a few, predominantly male groups at the time, that had a strong female member (I can only really think of Prefab Sprout), who although listed as a backing vocalist, often enjoyed almost equal billing as the lead singer.

I do sometimes feel however, that the audience Deacon Blue ended up with are not necessarily the ones they thought they would reach (what Bowie referred to as the point when his fans were more likely to have Phil Collins’ records in their collection than those by the Velvet Underground).  This became apparent early on in the show when Ricky shows distaste for the Tory conference that was in the venue earlier in the year and the room does not fill with agreement.  They do agree on one thing however, and that is that Deacon Blue are their favourite band.  Certainly from the fourth song in ‘Loaded’ many are on their feet and don’t sit down again.

For me, I felt that despite some great performances in the first half of the set, the band were not sizzling until the last part; from ‘Real Gone Kid’ through to the pre-planned false encore section, to another encore (despite a lot of the room beginning to leave).  It was certainly a frenzy of high fives and selfies with Ricky on the front row.  Granted this last run of songs contains some of their best work, from ‘Town to Be Blamed’ to ‘Fergus Sings the Blues’ to one of the best songs ever written ‘Dignity’ (especially if you are working for the council).  That song did begin with Ricky asking the crowd to sing the first verse, which normally annoys me intensely, but it actually pulled me in emotionally and I remembered what I loved about this band in 1988: that they were underdogs then, that ‘Dignity’ originally failed to chart at all in 1987, that they chose a band name based on the line “I want a name when I lose”, that they worked hard to be successful, and that they continue to work hard 30 years on for their loyal following.  Even an old cynic like me can’t fail to be moved by that.  

Highlights for me are the songs from ‘Raintown’ — ‘Chocolate Girl’ and ‘When Will You (Make My Telephone Ring)’, despite them being treated to a Vegas style medley, with ‘You’ve Got A Friend’ and ‘Have You Seen Her’ shoe-horned into the middle of each song respectively.  I use the term ‘shoe-horned’ unfairly I guess only because this is the first time I have heard the songs played this way.  I understand that Deacon Blue have used this technique many times before, but as a first-timer, to my ears it had a jarring effect.  And most of all, the best part of the night for me was the song that closes the main set, ‘Town to Be Blamed’, particularly the way Ricky’s voice breaks with emotion throughout.  He may not be the best vocalist, but his tone and delivery is still stunning after three decades.

The encore charade just seemed unnecessary in this show, particularly as ‘Dignity’ had not been played yet, and the band’s setlist had all the ‘encores’ written out already anyway.  It was a treat though with newer song ‘The Believers’, followed by the big hits ‘Dignity’, ‘Twist and Shout’ and the sublime ‘Fergus Sings the Blues’.  There is another false ending followed by almost everyone making for the exit, only for the band to return again for an acoustic version of ‘Always On My Mind’, where all band members are given the microphone to sing a line.  It is a bit too sickly sweet for me and apart from the faithful, a fair few continue to shuffle to the doors.  Considering the show was due to end at 10:30, we are finally allowed to leave at about 11:00; tremendous value for money.

Had I written this review immediately after leaving Symphony Hall, I would have been critical of the show, mostly for reasons even I don’t understand (but specifically for the overly polite band mix, with the guitar very quiet and the two voices at the same level and often fighting for space).  I probably would have mentioned that Ricky and Lorraine have morphed into Norman Wisdom and Bette Davis (in Baby Jane) lookalikes.  But I had a little time to dwell on this gig, and with that space and a day to reflect, I remembered that Deacon Blue are actually a good band who provide a fantastic show with their fans in mind; they are not self-indulgent but generous and giving.  My feelings are still very uncertain however, I move from loving it to hating it.. please feel free to file this under: Alan doesn’t understand this… and make your own mind up as the tour continues through December.


Reviewer: Alan Neilson

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