REAL GONE GOES OUT: Deacon Blue – Royal Festival Hall, London 16/11/2016

deaconThe Royal Festival Hall in London is one of those buildings that splits opinion. For some, it’s an amazing piece of 70s architecture, a lasting snapshot from a time when things looked yellow and brown…and different; for others, its mess of passageways and stairs around every corner gives the feeling of being stuck in an Escher painting. The performance area is great for the “serious” music event, the classical performance or world music extravaganza; for the rock or pop audience, it’s a space that never quite reaches its full potential, with people dancing in a restrained way in front of their fold up seats. Nevertheless, it’s here that Deacon Blue have returned after selling out the venue two years previously.

Somewhere between the bar area and the singing elevator (yes, really), a woman is talking to her friend. She comes across as the kind of woman you’d find stomping around Sloane Square. She probably has children called Tamara and Dominic. It’s immediately clear that she’s one of the millions of people for whom “pop” has become a dirty word. “Ya, you’ll like them. They’re sometimes a bit folky” she says. Her turn of phrase could fit with the evening’s supporting artistes, Americana practitioners Lewis & Leigh, but the future tense suggests she’s referring to Deacon Blue. Deacon Blue are a pop band…and based upon the performance we’re all about to see, they remain one of the UK’s finest.

The band takes the stage at a very prompt 8:30pm. From the darkness, close harmony singing presents a brief snatch of The Impressions ‘People Get Ready’ as an atmosphere builder. Some of us think we know what’s coming…and then the opening bars of ‘Raintown’ and blast of light doesn’t materialise. Instead, the band are softly lit and break into a new song, ‘Come Awake’. They’re proud of their 2016 release ‘The Believers’ and it shows, as this is the first of seven tracks performed from the still new album. Ricky Ross appears somewhere near centre stage, dressed in his best casual suit and a Chelsea boot with red elastic. He’s in slightly wobbly voice and as such, this is a sombre beginning. Moving into ‘Gone’, the new album takes a further hold and the band begins to warm up, but there’s a slight feeling of unease as if we don’t know where the evening is headed. With a nearly danceable feel and thundering drums, ‘Your Town’ continues the moody vibes with a near spoken vocal juxtaposed with a busy arrangement. In just under ten minutes, this has already been a very different experience compared with the opening of the previous tour.

From herein, though, the rest of the mammoth two and a quarter hour set brings magical moments one after another. With Ross summoning the audience to their feet as if channelling an American preacher, ‘The Rest’ changes the atmosphere within the room entirely and the audience finally lets go on this cold November night, before ‘The Very Thing’ – the first of a few ‘Raintown’ era classics allows the crowd voices to really loosen up. Within a couple of notes of ‘Chocolate Girl’, the audience roars and there’s a sense of perfect unity. It’s potentially one of the best ever performances of this early hit: the expected moments are played with passion and clarity, while a couple of detours really add to the fun. Ricky tells us that Alan has now taken up politics and fills us in on the awkward man’s whereabouts some thirty years on, while a segue into the Human League’s ‘Human’ is very welcome. A great 80s pop tune, it suits Deacon Blue rather well. By now, Ross is in full flow and his voice is every bit as good as his recorded self.

‘Your Swaying Arms’ is majestic with Lorraine MacIntosh dropping in some great harmonies before a sharp a return to the present via ‘This Is Love Song’ – a timely reminder of how ‘Believers’ stands up against the band’s early work. The middle of the main set provides some major highlights: ‘Stars’ – the evening’s only nod to 2014’s ‘A New House’ – sounds superb; ‘Real Gone Kid’ raises the roof with the audience in loud voice while MacIntosh endearingly flails around like someone truly caught up in the moment…and ‘Loaded’ – possibly the most underrated ‘Raintown’ single – is presented in a flawless performance. A political speech prefaces ‘The Believers’ with Ross telling everyone “it isn’t about politics or religion. It’s about believing in each other” and the track itself is stately, as if it’s been part of a Deacon Blue setlist for years as opposed to just a few weeks.

A sombre and unexpected ‘Orphans’ kicks off a selection of downbeat material, but the atmosphere in the room at this point is anything but. Over at stage left, chunks of the crowd are hanging off every word. Another new track ‘Birds’ is just gorgeous and the response Lorraine receives for her rendition of ‘Cover From The Sky’ is perhaps the most enthusiastic of the entire night. ‘Delivery Man’, a number that comes across much better live than on record allows the crowd time for reflection before heading back into those tried and tested hits. ‘Wages Day’ is prefaced by a noodling piano and Ross indulging in what first appears to be a Springsteen styled ramble but is, in fact, a lengthy set up for an old gag and as the first notes hit, the audience explodes in the way they had for ‘Real Gone Kid’; ‘Wages Day’, now – much as ever – is one of those pop tunes that never gets old. ‘Fergus Sings The Blues’ has a couple of arrangement embellishments but is performed in a tight fashion (still a great track, no matter how many years pass) and ‘That’s What We Can Do’ – one of the post-reunion Deacon’s finest – passes a very emotional four minutes.

It seems an odd choice to kick off an encore with another new track, but the gentle ‘I Will & I Won’t’ is inspired as the romantic interplay between Ricky and Lorraine is lovely. It’s perhaps odder still to follow this with the most un-Deacon-like ‘When Will You Make My Telephone Ring’, but halfway through it all makes complete sense, as this take on the ‘Raintown’ number allows keysman James Prime some time in the spotlight and he contributes a smooth but yet resilient organ solo, perfectly judged for the soulful tune that unfolds. A little crowd participation and nonsense leads into ‘Twist & Shout’ and the response is overwhelming – the pale girl has lost none of her sparkle. With three guitars on stage, an acoustic ‘Dream Baby’ pays tribute to a classic pop’s past and by the end, there’s a feeling that if not for a curfew, Ricky would lead his band and friends through rousing renditions of familiar tunes for at least another hour. As always, as the evening unfolds, so has the more carefree side of his persona, and by the latter part of the evening, he has the manner of a friend who’s promised to drive you from Glasgow to Edinburgh, but you’ve somehow ended up in Aberdeen, y’know, just because.

Somewhere amid a vary varied encore, the expected ‘Dignity’ is performed with love and gusto; the music may reflect the time in which it was written, but the complex narrative and feeling of humanity shows how Ross had always been inspired by the songwriters of the previous decade. The beauty of the track is lost on a man somewhere near the back of the ground floor stalls, as he spends most of it goading a security man. He’s been warned not to take photos or film, but continues to do so while dancing around the isle, filming anything and everything at random as if to make some kind of point. He simultaneously raises two fingers repeatedly at security in time with Dougie Vipond’s drum beats as his wife sits in her seat, head slightly lowered and visibly embarrassed. They’re heading for a major fight on the way home…if not a divorce. Dignity, indeed. It isn’t going to spoil a great night for anyone else, of course.

There’s no ‘Raintown’ this evening, no ‘Circus Lights’, no ‘I Wish I Was a Girl Like You’ and, regrettably, no ‘Love & Regret’, but it must be almost impossible to pick a set list from so much great material. The setlist is markedly different from the previous tour, but the band are as on form as ever and the lyrical complexities often show why their songs have endured where so many others have faded. This London show demonstrates why Deacon Blue are a superb, yet sometimes under-appreciated band and how, even nearing the end of their thirtieth year of an on-off career, they still have so much more to give.