Things I learnt about Hull last weekend – they have two stadia which are both, somewhat confusingly, referred to as the KCOM; the good people of Hull do not do suncream; they do do vaping; they do not seem to do ticket touts or concert parking; they don’t dance from the start; and they are immensely proud of coming from Hull.
Hull is the UK’s city of culture, 2017. To many this will produce sniggers. It should not. Phillip Larkin lived there most of his life. Poet Laureate Andrew Motion taught at the university. Stars of stage and screen from John Alderton to Maureen Lipman hail from the Humber. John Godber, he of Bouncers fame, is synonymous with the Hull Truck Theatre Company. The city even boasts a winner of The Apprentice, surely the very epitome of modern culture. And all of that is before we get to music and surely the most famous sons of Hull, 80s quirky band The Housemartins and members Paul Heaton and Fatboy Slim (before he was fat and/or slim and was just bass playing Norman Cook).
And it was a love of the music of Paul Heaton that dates back to The Housemartins first and penultimate album, London 0 Hull 4, that took me there on Saturday afternoon and the home of Hull KR rugby league club, the KCOM Stadium Craven Park (not the KCOM Stadium of the signposts, as that is the football KCOM, which is different).
The evening was opened by Billy Bragg, a man a long way from home but very much in his environment with the industrial backdrop of the cranes of the Hull Joint Dock looming over his shoulder. The words “I was a docker, I was a miner, I was a railwayman, between the wars” probably fitted most men over countless generations who lived in the nearby streets.
He called for cheers from each stand and the standing audience on the pitch. I wager it is the only time he will have called upon the people of the “Joinery Depot” terrace to give voice to their presence. Bragg gave us his version of working class folk and skiffle, interlaced with political comment. And as the lyrics to New England rose towards the sky, Mrs VFTN and I left our seats, stirred by working class, socialist lyrical rhetoric and ordered a wood fired pizza from the mobile pizza oven at the back of the stand. Fight the power.
The second act was the divine The Divine Comedy. Opening with Something for the Weekend, following up with Alfie and I was back in my twenties. Those unfamiliar with Something for the Weekend should immediately stop reading this and go find it online. It is heady mix of puns, double entendre and story telling. Neil Hannon apologised to the audience for not delivering the political speeches of Billy Bragg but relied upon the fact that he did do pithy lyrics by way of introduction to the 2010 song “Complete Banker“. The lady next to me was so overcome by the pithiness of the lyrics that she failed to pour her rosé into her glass and instead poured it over the back of the chap in front of us. Even this rosé misadventure was forgiven amongst the members of this workers collective.
Splendid though both Bragg and The Divine Comedy were, this is not why we were here. The people of Hull were not here for any other reason than for one of their own, Paul Heaton. And so the opening music to Heatongrad was greeted with cheers. Heatongrad is a rousing song, Heaton’s very own national anthem. And if Neil Hannon claimed a mastery over pithy lyrics, Heatongrad shows why Paul Heaton is truly a master. Has anyone ever described the Blair years and their aftermath better than the chorus words;
The launching of the lad’s mag to the streets of Baghdad
That made you oh-so-sad
The left so far a cleft, like the first meal they’d had
They treated dear old Blighty like some dirt-cheap shag
Now they’re paying zero tax at Richard Branson’s pad…..
And does anyone have a voice more perfect to deliver those words than Jacqui Abbott? Every word beautifully clear in a voice that has just an edge of country and western delivering a pop masterclass.
Immediately we traveled from the recent Heatongrad back to Hull in 1987 with Me and the Farmer. The whole crowd belted out “Me and the farmer like brother like sister, getting on like hand and blister” in unison with Heaton, everyone joined together as perhaps only music can, everyone getting on, well, like hand and blister.
Half an hour in and we had the trio of Beautiful South songs, The Prettiest Eyes, I’ll Sail this Ship Alone and Rotterdam and it was like someone had taken my university bedroom and unpacked it in Hull. Which has a personal irony in that Hull was my first choice for my degree but apparently I did not speak good enough French for the purposes of a law degree. But the music carried me back and I could have been sitting at my desk, a beer in my hand, hair on my head and my first CD player filling my room with the angst of sailing ships alone amongst the sharks and the treasure.
And so Paul Heaton introduced the band by aligning them to their favourite Rugby League teams. Which produced a crescendo of booing until he revealed himself to be the only Hull KR fan on stage. He is a cunning one.
We were treated to a couple of songs from Paul and Jacqui’s new album (Crooked Calypso, released on 21st July, already on pre-order. And yes, this review is totally biased). I Gotta Praise is a corker and a choral corker at that. By now the band had been joined on stage by a choir and a horn section. For a duo, there wasn’t much room left up there.
The crowd, seemingly glued to their seats earlier, came alive as we hurtled through DIY, Old Red Eyes is Back, The Austerity of Love and Good as Gold. Abbott and Heaton have been reunited for two albums with a third on the way. And it is in writing for his duets with Abbott in which Heaton excels. So we finished with a funked-up version of Perfect 10, a wonderful concoction of Abbott’s knowing voice, Heaton’s laconic delivery and the lyrics from his mind on the size of sex.
As they left the stage Heaton, with trademark honesty, told us they were going to stand behind the curtain for two minutes and then come back on. And come back they did, raunching through Don’t Marry Her before introducing what Heaton told us amounted to a dance track – Happy Hour. Hull lapped it up. Every person in the ground was a plasticine model with sliding feet and wobbly legs (if you have no idea what I mean, Google the video). I was at every Footie Club university disco, at every wedding I went to in my post university years, at every fortieth I have been to and every fiftieth that I am going to go to. I was dancing. I was dancing like a mad man. I was loving it. Everyone was.
Which is why we wanted a second encore. And we got it. Now I happen to be a connoisseur of a capella singing. As a child I saw the Flying Pickets live in concert. Twice. (My cousin was in the Pickets. And yes, it is the bald one). Caravan of Love was pitch perfect and full of sound. Probably helped by that choir. And every voice in the ground hitting every note. Too soon it was over, Jacqui Abbott taking a photograph of the audience (if she zooms in to the back right hand corner of the pitch, I am the one grinning like a loon with my coat zipped up to my chin à la pd heaton) before they played out with You Keep it All In.
As we walked away from the ground, my brand new nylon tour t-shirt stretching over every middle aged bulge (and failing to keep it all in) , the man walking behind us pronounced “I have been to some gigs, me. I have seen Johnny Cash and all them, me. But that were some gig just now…” And he was spot on.
I was happy in Hull. Everyone in Hull was happy (although the presence of a few more taxis might have prolonged the joy). If I had to give the gig a score? Well it would have to be a perfect 10. Well, almost. I am still waiting for my sun-drenched, wind swept Jacqui Abbott kiss.