I’m a fish out of water. My working knowledge of The Proclaimers is pretty poor. Sure, I’ve tapped my toes as a younger man to some of their catchy tunes, but when asked by a group of fevered fans over pre-show pints “What’s your favourite Proclaimers song?” I feel any answer would be somehow misleading and unfair.
And there’s no mistaking the warm crowd. A smattering of tartan clothing (I’ve even inadvertently donned a tartan shirt myself), some rogue Scottish accents, and a wall of excited praise meet me at every turn. A mixed crowd of folks mostly in their late 40s and 50s filling the basement of the QUB Student’s Union. There’s little space left as the support takes to the stage.
Dexys’ bassist and current co-frontman Pete Williams presents an accomplished 40 minute performance. More raw than in studio, Williams’ vocals bring to mind a kind of acoustic punk hybrid of Harry H Corbett and Robert Smith. There’s a country vibe, and the grown-up urchin styling of Dexys is ever present – all striped shirts and braces.
Williams draws from both his 2012 album See and this year’s Pledge supported Roughnecks and Roustabouts, his lyrics a chronicle of rock staples: the road, drinking, and women; and more personal ponderings such as the fractious relationship between him and his father (‘Are You Listening’). The band is tight and are well worth checking out.
The Proclaimers come on to a recording of ‘Act Naturally’. The Reid twins stand up front and launch into ‘Sky Takes The Soul’, one of the gentler songs in their repertoire, but which gives plenty of opportunity to show off their symbiotic harmonies. Seguing into a rousing ‘This Is The Story’ and the crowd-pleasing ‘Letter to America’ it’s a cleverly constructed opening which takes advantage of the better known back catalogue working the room up to the point where nearly everyone is on their feet bellowing the chorus back at the Scotsmen.
Over the course of the next hour and a half the pace rarely relents. I’m struck by just how anthemic their catalogue is, and how powerful their voices are. They fill the hall with acoustic guitar and Gallic twang. Even their gentler numbers (‘If I’m Still Around’, ‘Misty Blue’ for example) performed live have a power and strength which seems at odd to the perception of them as a pair of geeky bespectacled lads from the Scottish wilds.
The show is heavy on their classic numbers, but the most recent album Let’s Hear It For The Dogs is well represented, with five tracks making it into the middle part of the show including the heated up-tempo response to Operation Yewtree – ‘Then Again’, and the anti-bigotry ‘What School’. The latter we’re told resonates only in certain parts of Scotland, but the Belfast crowd will be well aware of the hidden agenda behind the question “What school did you go to?” There’s a cutting cynicism and wit sneaking through amid the declarations of love and conversations about faith (all brought together in new song ‘Through Him’ which even gives Belfast a shout-out, albeit in a less than complimentary way).
The final part of the gig moves from the beautiful ‘Misty Blue’ and ‘Sunshine on Leith’ through rousing closers ‘I’m On My Way’, ‘Then I Met You’ and ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’ – another number guaranteed to get the audience on side. The encore provides another set of classic up-tempo tunes, ‘Make My Heart Fly’, ‘The Joyful Kilmarnock Blues’ and ‘Life With You’, and the audience is left sated.
I’d been told before I went that The Proclaimers do an excellent live show, and having now witnessed them in the flesh I have to endorse that. It’s not perhaps visually arresting – there’s not much in the way of movement – but there is lots in the sound. The arrangements are fuller than on disc, commanding even cynical heads to stop and take heed. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that live is the only way one should listen to The Proclaimers because the studio production seems to take away much of the energy in place of slick sound. I wasn’t a ‘fan’ before tonight, but I’ll definitely be giving them another listen now. Robert J E Simpson, GiggingNI.com