Having shed the comfy cardigan of the Beautiful South back in January 2007, Paul Heaton is adapting to life without arena-filling anthems. "I do hope my London crowd grows," he says with a wry smile, "but it's nice to have you all in this small room".
Heaton, however, knew going solo would not be easy. His first attempt, 2002's prophetically titled album Fat Chance, sagged under the weight of an unwieldy pseudonym, Biscuit Boy aka Crackerman, and a bland new direction. This time round, however, Heaton has got it right. New release The Cross Eyed Rambler sees the cynical songwriter attack the bigotry of Little Englanders and the war-mongering patriotism of their Texan cousins, while celebrating middle age and waxing lyrical about his local pub. It is not just his focus that is sharper, either; his retro-hued sound is the least whimsical of Heaton's career.
Looking match-fit in an Adidas zip-up top, he wafts gracefully around the stage, barely looking at a music stand bearing lyric sheets and batting away demands for old favourites. He shares snatches of overheard conversations with the confidence of a household name, but sticks to new songs like a dogged and nervous beginner. Going for the jugular with the swaggering A Good Old Fashioned Town or aiming for the heart with The Ring from Your Hand, Heaton and his three-piece band knit the political with the personal together with jangly chords, spikey rhythms and soulful melodies. The pithy Everything Is Everything could sound like the rant of a grumpy old man in less careful hands, but becomes an impassioned call to arms; while Loving You Like I Do (Is Killing Me) is alive with Heaton's renewed energy. After two encores, he leaves the crowd chanting "Heato", safe in the knowledge there will be a few more of them next time.
· Plays the Latitude Festival, Southwold (0871 231 0821), on Saturday. Then touring.