Paul Heaton, Manchester University

Manchester University
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Solo projects by people in famous bands tend to be either forays into experimentalism or watered-down versions of what they usually do. Thus far, the Beautiful South's Paul Heaton has erred towards the latter, although when his solo album Fat Chance first appeared last year under the name Biscuit Boy he managed to reverse the regular fate of the solo performer, alienating his fan base with a title, rather than horrible music.

Now that Fat Chance is being promoted under again his own name, the fans have finally turned out in force, and while his casual approach may have stymied things so far, it makes the gig. Heaton's backing band includes members of Joe Strummer's Mescaleros, who he reveals have had just five days to learn many of the songs. This gives proceedings the kind of slightly shambolic, compulsively ramshackle edge associated with one tipple too many.

In fact, Heaton has recently given up drinking, which has improved his singing and allows him the mobility to indulge in Morris dancing. He has also recently moved from Hull to Manchester, which makes this "my home-town gig". "Deserter!" someone shouts.

While songs from the album indulge his love of country and soul, the songs he has written since show greater fruition of his blend of melody and caustic wit. In particular, a tune that compares the "navigation" of a lover's body to Scott's journey to the Antarctic ("When I got there, the flag that was up wasn't mine") is the sort of woozily magnificent ballad Tom Waits would come up with if he were even more warped.

Despite the Beautiful South's cumbersome mainstream status, Heaton should be more appreciated as one of British pop's great eccentrics. He is interested in Italian football hooliganism, Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party and birdwatching, and for his final number, he demonstrates the sort of music this can result in. Midway through a slow, blues version of the Grease song You're the One That I Want (a surreal concept in itself), he suddenly starts ranting. All the world's "scum" are unveiled, from audiences on chat shows to "people who wear shorts as soon as the sun comes out". Somehow, he manages to blame poverty in Ethiopia on "that luminous prat in the jogging suit", and the bizarre thing ends with the line: "Well fuck you, Tony!" You wouldn't get that from the Beautiful South.

· At ULU, London (020-7403 3331), tonight and tomorrow, and the Leadmill, Sheffield (0114-279 7997), on Saturday.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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