Article originally written for and published on http://www.manchesterconfidential.co.uk in March 2011
Not since Jon Bon Jovi’s little-known Gabba Techno album has there been such a gravitational change in artistic style as Plan B over the past 18 months.
From debut album ‘Who needs actions when you’ve got words?’ in 2006, his recent ‘Defamation of Strickland Banks’ has seen Ben Drew transformed from gritty London rapper to soulful falsetto vocalist.
Defamation is a concept album telling the tale of a man struggling to cope with being falsely imprisoned. Initially, this could have been perceived as a shameless attempt to pursue chart success, but for the small snag that he’s rather good. Consequently, his gig at the Apollo was a sell-out.
A mention must go to Nottingham-born support act Liam Bailey who was brilliant. Effortlessly cool, Bailey sang a range of self-penned soulful love songs. It was refreshingly unexpected from a British vocalist, with no attempt to ‘modernise’, autotune or any other form of audible travesty.
Also before Plan B was probably the most mind-blowing display of beatboxing I’ve ever seen, from FaithSFX. And I’ve seen Rahzel. Twice. Dubstep, sound effects, dance songs, pop songs… absolutely everything was performed immaculately.
Then to the headliner, who came on dressed as a French Sommelier. He started with a few album tracks, most notably the excellent ‘Prayin’ which was given both a reggae and drum n bass twist towards the end and ‘Hard Times’, a gospel number complete with a spiralling stained-glass patterned stage lighting.
It was at this point the show took a bit of a twist.
“I’LL STAB YOU IN THE EYE WITH A FUCKING BIRO,” came like a bolt out of the blue as Strickland switched to Plan B with the aggressive ‘No Good’ from his first album. The look on some of the older faces who had been merrily clapping along to the gospel was priceless.
It was surreal hearing an audience who had been singing along to motown, rapping the final line from Charmaine (“blud, that girl’s only fourteen”), a song about being lured by an underage temptress.
Switch back to Strickland as he performed hit single ‘Recluse’, perhaps the most uplifting song about prison incarceration you’re ever likely to hear, and a bluesy version of the catchy ‘She Said’, accomoanied by the entire audience.
The inevitable encore normally results in one or two tracks as a send off but Drew’s return to the stage was a bit different. He talked about his love for soul music before expertly taking on Smokey Robinson’s ‘Tracks of my Tears’. A beautiful moment. The medley continued with ‘Lean on Me’, and ‘My Girl’ with a ‘big fucking shout out to my boy Focus” in between.
Just as it teetered on the edge of karaoke, Faith SFX came out for a number of interesting beatbox/dubstep versions of soul songs before Plan B returned to rap for a rocky performance of ‘No More Eatin’ and a thumping version of ‘Stay too Long’ capped off the diverse encore.
Oh, and I’ve never seen a better example of ‘rabbit in the headlights’ than when a technical glitch shone the huge stage spotlight on a security guy, arms folded in the aisle. He stylishly opted for ‘terrified jazz hands’.
Plan B doesn’t seem an obvious performer, having a frosty yet assured demeanour on stage. But it was still a fantastic show.
His adept ability to switch between singing and rapping may seem like musical schizophrenia, but it works.
With talk of potential upcoming dubstep and reggae albums, it appears Plan B will continue to experiment with his different musical interests. I hope they are as impressive as the last.