Once, very long ago, I did something bad. Something very bad, for which I am highly ashamed, and feel the need to confess to you here and now. It was early 1990, just a few weeks after I saw my first ever gig; the Beautiful South at Bridlington Spa. I was staying at my Grandma and Grandad’s house in Hull. With them both safely tucked up in bed, I decided to entertain myself by looking up members of the newly famous Beautiful South in the phone book.
With Paul Heaton already famous for a good few years he was always going to be ex-directory. However, clearly unprepared for the perils of fame was Mr Dave Rotheray, the South’s lead guitarist and co-song writer (and improbably one of three Daves in a band with just five full time members). Sure enough, there he was - in pre-internet black and white – Rotheray, D.
I’m not sure what possessed the teenage me to ring Dave’s house that night. I am still horrified at the thought. However, ring I did. A male voice answered with a friendly enough ‘hello.’ ‘Can I speak to Dave, please?’ I squeaked. As the voice at the other end of the line changed tone and politely told me that Dave was not in (despite clearly being he) I realised I probably wasn’t the first East Yorkshire-based miscreant to call chez Rotheray. To his credit Dave didn’t use any rude words but it was clear that he wasn’t up for a chat with an inarticulate pimply youth. I hung up quickly, grateful that caller return and 1471 was a few years away.
Dave, I’d like to apologise for this invasion of your privacy two decades ago. I’ve lived many embarrassed moments since thinking about it and am slightly flushed now as I type. I’m sorry Mr Rotheray. Perhaps I could make it up to you by encouraging people to buy your new album The Life of Birds. I mean people should, and no doubt will anyway, whether you forgive me or not, but I thought it might help a little and assuage some of my guilt.
After all, the Life of Birds is a wonderful album. Less a solo album than a collection of collaborations with some of Dave’s favourite folks artists, the result is beautiful, moving and highly diverse. Fans of the Beautiful South - especially songs that put their various leading ladies in the spotlight - will be sated by Eleanor McEvoy’s Almost Beautiful and Nat Johnson’s Flying Lessons but there is more on offer here than the South with new singers.
Draughty Old Fortress features the striking vocal talents of Alasdair Roberts and sounds like the soundtrack to The Wicker Man re-recorded by the Fence Collective. There are hints of the Divine Comedy in Jim Causley’s The Sparrow, The Rush and the Nightingale and Jack L’s The Best Excuse in the World, whilst the slide guitar on Jim Causley’s too-brief The Hummingbird and Camille O’Sullivan’s Sweet Forgetfulness reminded me of listening to Radio Humberside’s weekly Country by Request as a lad. Elsewhere there are few voices as lovely as Kathryn Williams and her Crows, Ravens and Rooks is an album highlight.
As you may have picked up from the title and song names, The Life of Birds is also something of a concept album about our fine feathered friends. The theme hangs in the air well with some clever imagery and metaphors, but that said all the songs sit comfortably on their own and the bird references are not overdone. I’d challenge anyone to listen to Draughty Old Fortress out of context and know what it’s about, but knowing just adds an extra dimension to an already powerful moment.
Reviews have been very positive for the Rotheray and the album, which is nice considering all the shit the media hung on the Beautiful South over the years. Coinciding with former partner Paul Heaton’s own creative renaissance, it proves that they really are national treasures that we took for granted, but also that they were right to go their separate ways in 2008. Oh and by the way Dave, if you’d like to call me, uninvited in the middle of the night then please, feel free. I think I probably owe you one.