Plan B Gig Review

Article originally written for and published on http://www.manchesterconfidential.co.uk in March 2011

Plan B review

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.

Tinie Tempah Gig Review

Tinie Tempah review

Originally published on Manchester Confidential in 2011

Since scoring a number 1 debut single with ‘Pass out’ last February, double-Brit winning Tinie Tempah has enjoyed a meteoric 12 months.

The London rapper has racked up three number one singles, a chart-topping album, performed at Glastonbury with Snoop Dogg and toured with the likes of Rihanna. Not a bad start to a career, although he was also on the Graham Norton show, but nobody’s perfect.

Just a few days after he stormed the Brits, TT kicked off his Disc-Overy Tour at the Manchester Apollo.

Prior to the gig, I still had my reservations about him. Tinie has arrived at a time when British urban music has finally found a consistent route to commercial chart success through a fusion of hip hop and garage, which can often feel lyrically light on content.

The success of Tinie’s first two singles so far, Pass out and Frisky, have been largely thanks to the production of Labrinth, with Pass Out appearing on TV almost as often as Ant and Dec.

The first noticeable aspect of the evening was the admirable amount of effort the hordes of attending ladies had put into glamming-up for a gig. I’ve been to my fair share of hip hop shows in the past and it seemed the usual hoods and hi-tops had been exchanged for maxi dresses and vertigo-inducing heels – perhaps indicative of the crossover to mainstream.

Supporting Tinie was Katy B who, but for a tacit awareness of the name, was muddled in my mind amongst a seemingly endless glut of British female vocalists who have popped up over the last few years.

Backed by a live band including a saxophone, trumpet and bongos, her set was a pleasantly entertaining warm-up. For such a petit girl, she has a powerfully different voice and chirpy stage presence and belted through a surprisingly eclectic range of songs from slower dub-style through to bouncy club songs like ‘Louder’. ‘Lights on’ was the stand-out and got the crowd ready for the main man.

Ready though the crowd were, they had to wait. Both before AND after Katy B took to the stage, Tinie’s own DJ Charlesy performed excruciating half-hour sets, consisting exclusively of songs you might hear coming from the mobile phone of tracksuited youths on the top deck of a bus.

Each song ended with an annoying wedding DJ commentary, which genuinely included such classics as “all the single ladies make some noooise”, and “oggy oggy oggy…” (which was dignified with a cursory “oi oi oi” by the largely teenage crowd).

After what seemed like an ice-age, Tinie’s entrance was one of a man at the top of his game, with the crowd going absolutely berserk as he just stood as a motionless silhouette at the top of the stage. His presence was immediately impressive, bouncing straight though a number of songs including Snap and Wonderman, each performed with jumpy, energetic gusto and interesting videos and visuals on the giant screen behind.

He did a fair bit of talking between songs, engaging with the crowd, taking plenty of time to ‘big up’ Manchester, and gave the impression of a down to earth bloke who seems both thankful and surprised by his success.

He then rather curiously played a collection of videos from a number of artists he has collaborated with, providing a hype-man style voiceover. It seemed a bit of an odd inclusion and thankfully he mixed into his languid ‘Miami to Ibiza’ collaboration with Swedish House Mafia.

Then back to the crowd, where Tinie ‘randomly’ picked an audience member to join him on stage. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a fat, balding sweaty man but a beautiful young girl who was invited up to hold his two Brit awards aloft whilst he performed Invincible.“She’ll be going backstage later then”, I heard over my shoulder and, judging from the lengthy and touchy embrace she gave him upon leaving the stage, they were probably right.

With ‘Frisky’ and ‘Pass Out’ saved for the inevitable encore, the gig ended in suitably explosive fashion.

Despite the evening being somewhat dampened by the grating DJ Charlesy, who seems to be one of his mates along for the ride, Tinie was enigmatic and impressive, showing his wide appeal as one of the more prominent breakthrough acts of the last year.

Is he one of the best rappers in the UK? Not by a country mile, but his delivery, production, smart collaborations and likability reinforced his current standing as top of the pop crop.

Alexandra Burke Gig Review

Review originally written for and published on http://www.manchesterconfidential.co.uk in Feb 2011

Review: Alexandra Burke

AS a 27-year-old single male, my sporadic viewing of X-Factor is thankfully of my own choosing and is probably fairly typical; watch the auditions to see a parade of hopeless jesters having their dreams shattered by Simon Cowell, then stop before the serious crying begins in the live shows.

An equally unenthused Smudge Jones was in tow – imagine Adam Ant clothed exclusively by Topman – for perhaps the least rock and roll Saturday night of our lives: we had a glass of Ribena each before heading to the Manchester Apollo for Alexandra Burke’s All Night Long Tour.

Our fears that we would stand out like a sore thumb in the crowd were verified when we arrived, with pretty much every other demographic except ours out in full force.

We took to our seats. Smudge took this moment to tell me he feared being out of his comfort zone amid the razzmatazz of a pop concert and might have an embarrassment panic attack. I wasn’t sure if he was joking.

Previous X Factor winners have suffered mixed fortunes over the years, for every Leona Lewis (currently fresh from ‘breaking’ America, apparently), there’s a handful of Steve Brooksteins (I just had to Google ‘X Factor winner man’ to find his name).

Aside from the underrated Beverley Knight, Britain has been lacking a soul diva for years and its clear this is where Burke’s record company have identified the role they want for her. Perhaps that’s cynical. It may well have been Alexandra’s own choice but in the back of my mind I can’t help picture Cowell, sat on his throne made from pulped money, stroking the head of Louis Walsh curled up on his lap like Blofeld’s cat. “Yes, the girls very ‘urban’ and ‘current’, perfect for the MTV Base market”, he cries, before sending a pantomime cackle around the velvet-clad walls of his homoerotic volcano lair.

The first couple of songs were exactly that. Bassy, racy and dancy soul songs with Alexandra joined on stage with a fleet of muscle-bound man-cubines dressed in alarming costumes (two camp centurions, two very merry-men from Sherwood Forest) gyrating around amid a hypnotic lightshow. It was definitely quite an entrance and one I may choose to adopt in the future.

We weren’t clapping and mum-dancing around like everyone else, but the performance was entertaining enough. She’s got a great voice and amongst the big production of a nationwide tour, she looked like a pop star, rather than a talent show winner clinging to stardom. I’m under no illusions that Smudge and I don’t really have the capacity to provide any knowledgeable critique of RnB/Pop. We’re far too gritty for that. Ahem.

Then came the Destiny’s Child megamix; this was not good. “She couldn’t want to be Beyonce any more if she tried,” was Smudge’s view and I had to agree. I do recall Alexandra hysterically crying when performing with Beyonce on X Factor. I knew how she felt.

It’s no crime wanting to emulate someone like Beyonce, but I would have thought that the main challenge facing Alexandra and her management is to cast off the shackles of being ‘the talent show winner’ and established as a pop star in her own right. It seemed counterproductive to perform no fewer than four Destiny’s Child songs.

There were a couple of dutiful ballads, one with acoustic accompaniment and beautifully sung. The other, a clumsy, wailing cover of Hallelujah sent shivers down my spine but not in a good way.

This is a song which should never have been covered by the winner of a reality television programme. This is not Alexandra’s fault, however, so we chose this moment to go out to get a beer.

Halfway through her set, we were left shell-shocked as a dizzying cloud of oestrogen and screaming enveloped the whole audience as Alexandra’s dancers performed a clothes shedding ‘street dance’ routine. This went down an absolute storm with the crowd but left me and Smudge momentarily sinking into our seats.

The tour comes off the back of the delayed release of her album, with Cowell confirming the hold-up was ‘to allow Burke to polish her skills and find the right songs for the album’ (thanks Google, again). She certainly seems to be a good performer, a great singer and suitably marketable to the pseudo-urban pop market, so good on her I suppose.

I may even contact her a couple of years down the line, for a collaboration when I am Smudge’s manager during his career as an unlikely Grime MC. I’m currently giving him some time to polish his skills and find a suitably marketable angle for a skinny-jeaned indie rapper from Failsworth on the grime scene.