October 2011 Gig Reviews
Jessie J - Hammersmith Apollo, London - 31 October 2011
Jessie J has had a remarkably eventful 2011. Having started the year an unknown, the woman born Jessie Cornish has scooped the Brits' critics award and, bizarrely, four Mobos, seen her debut album Who You Are go double-platinum, broken her foot and spent subsequent weeks putting it in her mouth, not least in a recent interview, where she claimed her mishap had "given her a different respect for people who don't have legs".
Her success is surprising, as Who You Are is a wretched record, a farrago of gratingly banal dance-pop and overwrought sub-X Factor balladry. Yet Jessie J comes into her own live. Strapped into a skimpy purple bondage costume like a Primark Cleopatra, she turns in an exuberant, personality-plus performance that succeeds in temporarily distracting you from the awfulness of her material.
An Amazonian figure skipping across a lavish blood-red set, she dispatches saccharine power ballads such as Casualty of Love and Not Perfect in a foghorn blare. When James Morrison joins her for the raucous pop-soul of Up, she dwarfs him in stature and charisma, as Morrison gamely attempts to boogie on down before gratefully exiting after the pair share an excruciating high-five.
The new material previewed is deeply unprepossessing: My Shadow is a vocal gymnastic exercise that Celine Dion would reject as overly mawkish, while Technology poses the deathless question "Was it real, or just a re-tweet?" She's on safer ground with the encore of her two stuttering electro-pop hits, Do It Like a Dude and Price Tag, which encapsulate Jessie J perfectly: a hyper-modern triumph of chutzpah, and of spirited mediocrity.
Ryan Adams - Union Chapel, London - 29 October 2011
What does a hellraiser do when he reaches 37 and finds little hell left to raise? For Ryan Adams, whose unpredictability has kept fans enthralled for nearly 20 years, the next step is to slow down and let a little sunshine in. Not too much, obviously, but enough to turn this show into a mutually happy experience. For over two hours, the North Carolina-born singer surefootedly glided through 26 delicate songs, punctuating them with genial chat.
He himself pointed out the deficiencies of tonight's solo acoustic setup. Without his now-defunct Cardinals backing band to provide camouflage, the onus was on him to "work the stage", he said wryly, which he did by "sitting there and talking about my feelings". That got a big chuckle, which says something about the relationship between the singer and his uncommonly devoted fans: every witticism provoked gales of laughter, every song ecstatic applause. It often felt as if the crowd were protective parents and Adams the wayward son - even an improvised tune about a sweater was greeted with enchanted squeals.
Musically, he was in an expansive mood. The set offered an overview of his career, from alt.country beginnings with the band Whiskeytown to his current album, Ashes & Fire, and even included a song he'd never played live before, Rocks. He sang it unhurriedly, chewing over a lyric that, characteristically, painted him as a romantic who doesn't know the meaning of "healthy detachment".
If the show had one fault, it was tempo: even Adams acknowledged that it erred on the soporific side. "I could get sponsored by [insomnia medication] Ambien," he joked. The fans laughed joyously, but the man had a point: a little bounce wouldn't have marred this otherwise lovely set.
PJ Harvey - Royal Albert Hall, London - 29 October 2011
In February, PJ Harvey chose the Troxy, a former cinema and bingo hall in the heart of the East End, to debut her 10th album. The building, riven with social history, was an appropriate setting for Let England Shake's songs, which narrate the grim effects of war on ordinary soldiers. Concluding this year's live dates with two shows at the Royal Albert Hall, Harvey finds herself at the other end of the venue spectrum - but again, there's a resonance to hearing her examine the state of her nation and the tangled-up feelings of love and bitterness it elicits in this opulent bastion of Britishness.
The cavernous acoustics enable Harvey to emphasise the stateliness of her material: in particular, The Guns Called Me Back Again and All and Everyone take on a certain grandeur, the helplessness and futility depicted in them matched by bravery, the impotence of their protagonists transcended by the freedom provided by Harvey's generously aching melodies. England, an uncomfortably broken listen on record that Harvey sings as though dragging her words through brambles, becomes a full-bodied elegy, while the drifting, shell-shocked Hanging in the Wire feels even more like an out-of-body experience than ever.
Harvey has spoken of her intention to function as a kind of war correspondent, and she plays this journalistic role to perfection tonight. Standing to the right of the stage as though to emphasise her observation from the sidelines, wearing the black crinoline dress and feathered headdress that have become a kind of uniform for her this year, she stays firmly out of the songs' way. Centre-stage is left empty; you get the impression that Harvey has left this space for the ghosts she conjures up. Selected cuts from her back catalogue are folded seamlessly into the Let England Shake aesthetic, the gore and violence of The Piano and the emotional warzone of a tender, spellbinding The Desperate Kingdom of Love linking neatly to her wider back catalogue.
The setting also underlined how Let England Shake has cemented Harvey's position in the British rock establishment: she has become the first ever double Mercury prize winner, and has spent this year being courted by the Imperial War Museum and playing in front of prime ministers past and present. And yet there is an irony at the heart of tonight's respectable and respectful show: while Let England Shake avoids sloganeering or explicit politicking, its focus on the Battle of Gallipoli - a campaign that represents the failure of governmental moral authority - and dispassionate gaze on the physical and mental toll wrought by war make it all the more effective as a deeply relevant protest album underpinned by anger at citizens' mistreatment at the hands of their leaders. One wonders what David Cameron made of it all.
Britney Spears - O2 Arena, London - 29 October 2011
The trouble with once having been a teenage superstar and the most famous virgin in the world, is that it's hard to grow up. Britney Spears's conundrum, at the age of 29, is how to translate the effortless apple-pie sex appeal she once possessed into a marketable product as an adult performer. Judging by the evidence of her Femme Fatale tour at the O2 on Thursday, Spears has conspicuously failed to do so.
Her sexuality these days seems to consist of having things done to her while wearing very little. On stage she sports a varied array of sequined bikinis and fishnet tights, while she is handcuffed in a cage and a prison guard writhes against her. Later, a mustachioed Hell's Angel spins her round on the handlebars of his motorbike and a series of 1950s-style newspaper photographers jam their cameras up her billowing skirt trying to get pictures of her crotch.
On the hi-tech video screens behind Britney's pliable physical presence, filmed footage of a bizarre villain with a shaved head and an unexplained penchant for cracking lollipops between his teeth is repeated ad nauseam. The idea seems to be that this evil man is trying to track Britney down and kill her but keeps getting outwitted by her extraordinary facility for disguise and running fast in extremely high heels. "Tonight, you and I dance a vicious dance," the lollipop-cracker drones on.
If only Britney were dancing a vicious dance, or indeed any kind of dance at all. Instead, we are treated to 75 minutes of lethargic, dead-eyed routines with apparently lip-synched lyrics and staged spontaneity (every time a "fan" is asked on-stage, they miraculously seem to be wearing a Britney T-shirt). Spears can barely muster up the energy to move from one side of the stage to the other. Instead, a frenziedly spirited troupe of backing dancers is left to pick up the slack, while Britney clambers aboard various moving parts of machinery and is wheeled around like an ancient maiden aunt being taken for her morning perambulation in a bath chair.
For "Gimme More", she is pushed on stage in an Egyptian barge and proceeds to jiggle about pointlessly in sparkly gold pants, going through the motions as though in rehearsal, rather than performing to a paying audience. Presumably, she intends to channel the spirit of Cleopatra. Sadly, it seems to be Cleopatra post-mummification.
For "Don't Let Me Be the Last to Know", she clambers gingerly on to a swing and is winched several feet above ground like a shipping crate. Again and again, Spears is raised and lowered, while the dancers cavort around her as if she is the handbag left on the nightclub floor on a girls' night out.
Even her best songs suffer. During "Piece of Me", the single released at the height of Spears's public breakdown and intended as a riposte to the money-grabbing, fame-seeking celebrity vortex, the background screen is filled with nonsensical images of shotguns and hand grenades. The show tries so hard to portray Spears as dangerous, edgy and sexy that she ends up being none of these things.
It is sad seeing someone who once revelled in performing so uncomfortable in the public gaze. Spears's father, Jamie, was awarded "conservatorship" of his troubled daughter following her public disintegration in 2008, during which she lost custody of her children amid allegations of drug and alcohol problems. Is he the one persuading her to take to the road and raise the necessary funds? Because this Britney, with her robotic smile and listless presence, is a pale imitation of what she once was. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the ceaseless demands of celebrity have taken their toll and she's sick to the back teeth of it all.
And yet her fans continue to love her. They scream when she takes a raincoat off. They scream when she puts it back on. They scream when Britney walks to one side of the stage, lifting her heels high like a Lipizzaner show pony. They scream when she launches into a curtailed version of "Hit Me Baby (One More Time)". They scream long into the night and when they leave, trailing out of the O2 in their pigtails and school uniforms, they are rewarded with free "scented tattoos", distributed by security guards at the exits. The tattoos, we are told, are fragranced with Britney's own Cosmic Radiance perfume, available at a discount in branches of Superdrug. Unfortunately, not even Cosmic Radiance can disguise the fact that this show stinks.
Cliff Richard - The O2, London - 27 October 2011
One wonders what Percy Sledge thought as he stood alongside Cliff Richard, duetting on Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham's I'm Your Puppet, and surveyed the front rows of the O2, occupied entirely by distinguished-looking ladies brandishing glove puppets. Perhaps he offered thanks that Sir Cliff's Soulicious tour - a slightly awkward attempt to merge a series of appearances by soul legends with his own catalogue - didn't encompass a cover of Junior Walker's Shotgun. Or perhaps he wondered what quirk of fate had brought him - and Lamont Dozier, James Ingram, Freda Payne, the 5th Dimension and the slightly less legendary Jaki Graham - to a series of arena gigs alongside a man whose grasp of one half of soul's meshing of the spiritual and the sexual is undoubted, but whose awareness of the other is surely barely existent.
The revue-style format - guests wander on to join Cliff, sing a duet, then a song or two of their own as their host leaves the stage for a costume change - kept things moving jollily, but also made for an oddly disjointed evening. When Living Doll was followed by Payne taking the stage to perform Band of Gold, one was reminded not so much of the Stax/Volt 1967 tour of Europe, but of one of those Sounds of the 60s compilations you can pick up in a petrol station for a couple of quid: utterly random and filled with as much rubbish as treasure. There were also moments when the guests had clearly misjudged the audience. Little wonder the crowd tittered with embarrassment when James Ingram flung himself to the floor and began dry-humping the stage.
But there were moments of greatness, and they came when Cliff left the guests behind and concentrated on the string of late 70s and early 80s MOR hits that posited him as a wholesome answer to Fleetwood Mac: Devil Woman, We Don't Talk Anymore and Carrie sounded wonderful - clever and sparky and so unlike the crooning of The Young Ones it's hard to believe they are sung by the same man.
Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds - Manchester Apollo - 27 October 2011
It's been a good week for Noel Gallagher. On Sunday, his first post-Oasis album, Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds, debuted at No 1, comfortably ahead of The X Factor's Matt Cardle. Tonight, his fans - some paying touts £300 a ticket - are already singing along to the new songs. Equally, with the album notching up twice the sales of brother Liam's Beady Eye, the senior Gallagher has further edged ahead in the Oasis sibling rivalry stakes by dismissing Liam's suggested 2015 reunion. Pointedly, the first song Gallagher plays is Oasis's It's Good to Be Free.
However, unlike Liam, he isn't leaving the old band behind. Nine Oasis tunes feature alongside 11 new ones, which don't stray far from the Oasis/Kinks blueprint, despite organ swirls, hints of electronica and a jazz trumpet. However, a chunk of them - the likes of the stomping AKA ... What a Life! and recessionary-tinged Everybody's on the Run - are his best tunes in 15 years.
With his pale shirt and red guitars, Gallagher could have stepped straight out of the Britpop era, and the odd acoustic Oasis classic turns the crowd into a massed choir. Adults weep as they sing along, and buskers who make a living from Wonderwall and Don't Look Back in Anger hear how they ought to be done. There is less sign of the trademark wit, although he does explain the non-appearance of the reunited Stone Roses in the audience with the words "the Reds are confined to barracks" after United's weekend loss to City. Then it's back to thumpers such as (Stranded on the) Wrong Beach, with a balding, beer-bellied beast of a drummer unleashing a formidable Glitter stomp.
It's a solidly enjoyable pop gig rather than anything too adventurous or spectacular, but with a teaser from the intriguing forthcoming psychedelic collaboration with Androgynous Amorphous played before the show, perhaps that is yet to come.
Florence and the Machine - Hackney Empire, London - 26 October 2011
Parents who worry that their teenage daughters have few pop role models other than the intemperately sexual Rihannas of the world should be pleased that Florence Welch is back. Playing her only British show of the year, she was a vivid counterpoint to almost every other woman in the top 10, where she can expect to find herself when her second album comes out next week. Already poised behind her microphone when the curtain went up, she cut a dramatic figure: tall and russet-haired, with a pale knee protruding from the split of her long, satin dress. At the sight of her, an "ooh!" went up, and someone hoisted a sign with "Florence, we love you" written across it.
This gig, streamed on the Guardian website, was a testbed for the Ceremonials album. Its predecessor, 2009's Lungs, topped the charts and won a Brit award, and her label is geared up for monumental promotion. Accordingly, tonight's setlist was so crammed with new songs that there was room for only three familiar ones, and her biggest hit, You've Got the Love, was inexplicably omitted. The immediate impression of the new material was that it will take time to sink in - some tunes, such as Heartlines, were bass-led dance grooves rather than songs, while Leave My Body offered shimmering percussion but little by way of a memorable melody.
Yet the overall effect was magical. Over 12 songs, the tribal drumming and contrasting lullaby notes of a harp left you punchdrunk. Florence herself didn't seem immune. Approaching the end of the show with Rabbit Heart, she pirouetted woozily, like a ballerina that had fallen from the top of a music box, lost in her own world.
Matt Goss / Mitch Winehouse - Royal Albert Hall, London - 23 October 2011
The oddest double bill of the year? The former singer of Bros and Amy Winehouse's father takes some beating. Despite appearances, though, this show isn't the result of a blindfolded promoter sticking pins into a celebrity magazine. Matt Goss has reinvented himself as a sharp-suited Rat Pack impersonator, while Mitch Winehouse last year released an album of American jazz covers. And the similarities, as Winehouse says, don't stop there: "We've both had a loss in our lives: Carolyn, Matt's sister, and my darling daughter Amy."
Whatever the rest of the world may think of his transition from cabbie to crooner, he is warmly received here, and for the right reasons. There's a pleasing warmth to his voice, and his eight songs slip down with relaxed charm. Dedicating Autumn Leaves to his late mother, he worries that he might cry, but leaves the stage blowing kisses. Who could begrudge him his moment?
Meanwhile, Goss is keen to let us know that there is musicianly substance under the showbiz wrappings. But the clutch of self-penned ballads and swing pastiches he slots into the set are greatly overshadowed by the classic covers that comprise the meat of the act. Goss performs in a tux these days, and he delivers Fly Me to the Moon and the rest with careless Cockney verve - just as Sinatra might have had he grown up in Peckham. Or, at least, that's the comparison Goss is aiming for.
He is convincing enough to have won a residency in Las Vegas, and a troupe of dancers, the Dirty Virgins, do their bit to recreate a louche casino atmosphere. Inevitably, though, it is Bros's When Will I Be Famous? that get the fans rushing to the stage. If he's frustrated, he hides it - just as Frankie would.
Glen Campbell - Royal Festival Hall, London - 23 October 2011
We live in an era of rock and pop where no one really means it when they say goodbye, where "farewell" inevitably turns into "coo-eee, remember us?" when the price is right. Given the current climate, there is something slightly strange about attending a gig that really does have an air of finality about it. Earlier this year, Glen Campbell announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease and that his current album, Ghost on the Canvas, and its accompanying tour would be his last.
The journalists who have met him recently seem a little taken aback by how faded Campbell's memories already are, which means it is hard to approach the show without a degree of concern. His eyes seldom stray from the three autocues on stage and he mocks his waning ability to banter between songs - "I used to stand up here and tell jokes, but I forgot 'em all" - but whatever else Alzhemier's may have done to him, it doesn't seem to have affected his voice, nor indeed his guitar playing. Midway through opener Gentle On My Mind he gives an excited cry of "I'm gonna take one!" then reels off an incredible solo, something he does again and again: his playing is dexterous, fluid and effortless, a reminder that, before the hits, he was one of the legendary LA session musicians the Wrecking Crew.
He occasionally seems surprised when his band - including his sons and daughter - prompt him as to what he is going to sing next. "Really?" he frowns. "That?" Then his face invariably softens into a delighted grin: "Well, that's a great song." He has a point. Galveston, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Southern Nights, Rhinestone Cowboy, Dreams of an Everyday Housewife: his back catalogue is like a masterclass in beautiful, economical pop songwriting, every melody perfectly formed, not a surplus note or word.
The show never feels like an exercise in showy rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light bravado, nor in lachrymose heart-string-tugging. Perhaps that's because, as he sings in A Better Place, one of a couple of new songs that touch on his circumstances, "the world's been good to me". By anyone's standards, he's lived a life in full: four wives, eight kids, untold hellraising and what may be the greatest love song ever written in his back catalogue. Tonight, Wichita Lineman sounds as astonishing as ever, the gorgeous, aching guitar solo Campbell added himself instead of a third verse a demonstration of how perfectly his relationship with songwriter Jimmy Webb worked. Or perhaps it's because, occasionally fluffed lines and all, Campbell just doesn't cut a sad figure on stage. He looks like he's having the time of his life, albeit for the last time.
Laura Marling - York Minster - 23 October 2011
"I've discovered that York has 365 pubs," whispers Laura Marling, thankfully not sounding like she has been researching this personally during the day. "Many years ago as a punishment you were sent into them to lick the toilet seat." Yuck. These aren't the sort of fascinating historical facts traditionally dispensed in the 13th century seat of the Archbishop of York.
After trailblazing a folk revival among the young and fashionable, the 21-year old, named best British female solo artist at the Brits, is taking the music into a different area altogether in the form of a tour of "Britain's oldest, sometimes eeriest and most beautiful buildings."
This breathtaking gothic cathedral's hymnal, slightly spooky atmosphere makes an appropriate, if surreal, setting for Marling's timeless, ageless songs, not least when a gentleman - or ghost - strides past in full Victorian regalia. The Hampshire singer is led on by a town crier's ringing bell. Initially she sounds awed by the surroundings, perhaps nervous of following the venue's formidable regular turn, John Sentamu, famous for cutting up his dog collar and comparing pre-marital sex to "testing whether the milk is good before buying the cow".
From anywhere further back than the tenth row, Marling is so dwarfed by the masonry she looks like a tiny doll. But when she sings, especially solo with guitar, her soaring vocals command the space.
Marling is touring her new album A Creature I Don't Know, and songs such as The Muse and Sophia bristle with hooks and literary imagery. But perhaps she has other reasons for playing here. Her songbook bulges with references to her desire for - and struggles with - religion. If lines such as "I don't believe in everlasting love" gently rebuke Christian teachings, the electric, brooding The Beast - which sees her cry "tonight he lies with me" under startling red light - is positively satanic. Marling isn't struck down by lightning, although when she fluffs a couple of intros and the echoey acoustics sometimes blur the sound, one suspects divine retribution.
The gig is part chucklesome, part magical. Onstage banter reveals that the band's 1861 pump organ is actually held together with bits from the hardware shop over the road, and that band members were startled to find their namesakes entombed within the cathedral.
Ghosts and Night Terror remain from the debut which made Marling a star at 17, with Rambling Man and a lovely Goodbye England from 2010's I Speak Because I Can among the standouts. But Marling is progressing so fast that she has already started debuting new material. Here, a rousing untitled number makes her furious guitar sound like sitars. We don't get the amazing unrecorded Pray For Me, which darkly ponders whether herself, God and the devil are liars and admits to a period where she thought she carried the devil's mark. Perhaps, even with her mellifluous, butter wouldn't melt vocal, that would have been too much for the man upstairs.
New Order - Le Bataclan, Paris - 23 October 2011
With Mancunians New Order about to play their first gig since 2006 (and their first ever without bassist Peter Hook), and news from back home announcing the reformation of another seminal Manchester band, the Stone Roses, it's only fitting that, on arrival in Paris, clouds are gathering and rain is beginning to fall.
New Order, the band that formed from the remains of Joy Division following the death of singer Ian Curtis in 1980, have been estranged before. The five-year absence that followed 1993's Republic was because, in their own words, "we were getting on each other's nerves" - and although a triumphant homecoming gig at the Manchester Apollo arrived in 1998, Hook eventually left the band in 2007. Sadly, it seems that too much murky water has passed under the bridge since for a full reunion to happen any time soon. This summer they gave separate interviews to promote a new compilation, Total: From Joy Division to New Order, but one thing was agreed: there was no way back for the original lineup. "Too many things have been said and done," said frontman Bernard Sumner.
Since the split, Sumner and drummer Stephen Morris have been playing with guitarist Phil Cunningham and bassist Tom Chapman in new outfit Bad Lieutenant, whose sound is not unlike latter-day New Order. But last month came the announcement that New Order were reforming without Hook but with fourth original member (and Morris's wife) Gillian Gilbert for benefit gigs in Brussels and Paris. With Chapman on bass and Cunningham on guitar, some fans have unkindly chosen to view this new lineup as Bad Lieutenant plus Gillian Gilbert rather than New Order minus Peter Hook.
Nevertheless, there is an air of expectation before the gig starts. At least half the crowd have travelled over from Britain, including past collaborators Neil Tennant from Pet Shop Boys and Ed Simons from the Chemical Brothers.
On stage, New Order are greeted like returning heroes, Sumner dressed in black and looking leaner than he has for a while. After the opening "Elegia", and before they're even halfway through "Crystal", he's already done his trademark dance: a skip on the spot, a punch of the air and a "Woo!". When Sumner does his dance that early you know you're in for a great gig.
Bad Lieutenant sets included several New Order and Joy Division songs, but tonight is pretty much New Order's greatest hits. From an upbeat "Regret" to an emotionally charged "Ceremony", the understated and underrated song that bridged Joy Division and New Order, they look and sound like a band rejuvenated.
"Age of Consent" is a rare live treat, and though it's nearly 30 years old it sounds fresher than ever. "Love Vigilantes" is arguably even stronger, the new lineup sounding remarkably tight behind Sumner. By the time they break into a pounding "Bizarre Love Triangle", Sumner has ditched his guitar and is relishing the frontman role. He prowls the stage looking half his 55 years. "I feel fine and I feel good," he sings, dancing from foot to foot, despite the oppressive heat.
A reworked and extended "True Faith" is perhaps the only dip, losing some of the charm of the original. But the reworking of "5-8-6" into a powerful, guitar-driven beast is a revelation, and "Perfect Kiss" is, well, perfect. They close with "Temptation", the stage bathed in green, and Sumner egging the crowd on to sing along.
Every fan has their own dream setlist, but they'd be hard pushed to beat tonight's selection. A crisp, driving "Blue Monday" is saved for the encore, Hook's original distinctive bassline slightly tweaked by Chapman, and they finish with "Love Will Tear Us Apart".
Any worries that the new New Order may look or sound like a tribute band are reassuringly allayed, though it's still odd to hear Hooky's distinctive basslines without the hirsute man himself onstage, legs apart, bass slung down by his knees.
The Roses reunion proves that bands should never say never, but for the moment, there's probably more chance of Morrissey and Marr reuniting, or Liam and Noel burying the hatchet, than the original lineup of New Order playing together again. As Ian Curtis wrote in tonight's closing song: "Resentment rides high, but emotions won't grow, and we're changing our ways, taking different roads, love will tear us apart."
The Joy Formidable - Oran Mor, Glasgow - 21 October 2011
Even without the 7ft model lighthouse centrepiece of their nautically themed stage set (too tall for tonight's low-ceilinged venue), it's immediately apparent that north Wales's The Joy Formidable have loftier ambitions than your average power trio. A mini ship's wheel hanging from frontwoman Ritzy Bryan's mic stand underscores the notion of a band bravely navigating stormy emotional seas. Drummer Matt Thomas's kit is unusually positioned to the front and side to make room for a harp and a Chinese gong - the latter so huge you hope their roadies get paid a bonus for lugging it around.
Where other vocalists might sing such stadium-ready, portentous alt-rock songs at some far-off unseen vista, vocalist/guitarist Bryan - all panda-bear eyes and severe bottle-blond bob - spits them at the front rows. "Are you awake out there?" she berates the crowd during A Heavy Abacus. "Let's go!"
Her demands for more recall the scream-if-you-want-to-go-faster-isms of a fairground caller, and you could compare The Joy Formidable's sound to riding a rollercoaster: think dramatic holds followed by hurtling dips and dives that are a thrill to experience, even if you can see them coming a mile off. The sharp timbre and Welsh twang of Bryan's voice suggests Cerys Matthews gone grunge. Cradle's mixture of shoegazey guitars and big pop melodies should leave My Vitriol wondering why they weren't shown as much love.
Their best song, The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade, is a mid-tempo wash of epic dream-pop, but it's atypical in a set that favours pace and punch to the point of fatigue. Closer Whirring begins with a girl with hot-pink hair plucking that harp brightly, and ends with Bryan writhing around on the floor during a several-minutes-long instrumental blowout. It might be worth proposing to The Joy Formidable that more isn't always more, though their ears are probably ringing too loudly to care.
Pixie Lott - Forum, London - 20 October 2011
At 20, Pixie Lott's campaign for world domination continues apace. Since her debut album, 2009's Turn It Up, spent virtually a year in the top 40, she has received praise for her film debut in the otherwise universally panned Fred: the Movie, and now returns with an imminent second record, Young Foolish Happy, that is unashamedly aimed at breaking America.
She must be nervously aware of the fate of another British pop siren, Duffy, who saw her debut album go multi-platinum and scoop a Grammy, before its followup flopped so badly that she is now taking a break from music. Lott is likely to escape that fate: Young Foolish Happy is a slick selection of R&B-pop nuggets and sophisticated ballads whose rave-pop lead single, All About Tonight, hit No 1 earlier this month.
Nevertheless, tonight's show makes it painfully clear that while the industrious Lott ticks many basic pop-star boxes - voice, songcraft, looks, charisma - she has the originality and soul of a Post-It note. Although she has eschewed the talent-show route to fame, her over-emoting vocals are standard X Factor issue, while new tracks such as Nobody Does It Better and What Do You Take Me For never rise above the proficiently generic.
Eager to please and padding across the stage in her bare feet, Lott gives it her best shot, but even the infectious Tamla Motown-hued soul of her debut single Mama Do and sumptuous, shoulder-heaving ballad Cry Me Out can't dispel the worrying air of non-event that permeates the evening, and imply that Pixie Lott is deeply unlikely to ascend the stellar heights she aspires to.
Bon Iver - Manchester Apollo - 20 October 2011
'This is pretty exciting," says Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, with considerable understatement. Only four years ago, the 30-year-old from Wisconsin had no band, no relationship and was holed up in a log cabin pouring everything into his For Emma, Forever Ago, a debut LP of desolate, beautiful indie folk. But since the self-titled followup made him an international star, he's been collaborating with Kanye West and taking calls from Neil Young.
Details Meanwhile, Vernon's original quartet have expanded to a nine-piece, including two drummers, more guitars than Nigel Tufnel had in Spinal Tap, and a gigantic, tuba-like instrument that Vernon tells us is a "bass saxophone". Get the name wrong, he says, "and I'll break your face".
Standing centre-stage under glowing lights, the quiet American makes an unlikely rock star, his ill-matched jacket and trousers and wispy beard giving him the look of a 70s geography teacher who stumbled on stage and just happened to make an incredible noise. At first, the soundsystem struggles with the ensemble's complexity; but gradually, with Vernon's whale cry of a voice powering through emotional songs of hymnal beauty, the concert turns into a long soak in sound.
The speed of their rise is reflected in Vernon's quips about "having been around a long time", but they have already assembled enough material for a show that approaches two hours. It draws heavily on the second album: a musical travelogue with songs titled Perth, Minnesota, WI, and the particularly sublime Calgary. Vernon has such an individual style of singing that making out individual lyrics is virtually impossible beyond a general sense of loss and melancholy. Occasionally lines leap out, such as "And you're drunk as hell" in the otherwise opaque Stacks, or Calgary's strangely evocative "Don't you cherish me to sleep." The humbling, sad melodies are informed by all manner of sounds, ranging from Brian Eno-like ambience to avant-garde noise.
While the childlike harmonies of Hinnom, TX hang ghostlike in the air, the more upbeat For Emma finds people clapping along. By the encore of The Wolves (Act I and II), Vernon is emboldened enough to coax the crowd into singing "What might have been lost" like a huge choir, but looks entirely overcome when the song disappears into the sound of cheering.
Feist - London Palladium - 18 October 2011
Among the complaints Leslie Feist registered about her brush with platinum success was one about the kind of venues she was required to play. The arenas the ad-boosted success of 1234 and its attendant album The Reminder forced her into were too big: among other problems, she protested, they destroyed the effect of her on stage shadow-puppet show.
The shadow-puppet show has gone - tonight Feist performs instead beneath a vast screen that shows an aerial view of the band on stage - but you can see why a theatre might suit her better, curious venue for a rock show though the Palladium is: the atmosphere reserved, the walls bedecked with posters advertising past glories involving Norman Wisdom and Gracie Fields, her T-shirts jostling with merchandise for Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Wizard of Oz (Toto cuddly toy, £7.50).
The setting forces the audience to concentrate hard on the music. In fairness, they don't really look like the kind of crowd who'd easily whip themselves into a nihilistic frenzy of drunken moshing, but it's good to be on the safe side. The set is heavy on tracks from her resolutely downcast new album Metals, stripped of their strings and woodwind and instead foregrounding Feist's grumbling, distorted acoustic guitar and some impressively complicated vocal arrangements from a trio of backing singers - also required to don coats covered in bells for percussive effect. It is music that's both very beautiful and very subtle, and you could see how the intricacies of something like Graveyard's emotional shift from sombre to weirdly rousing could easily be lost live.
As it is, it works perfectly. Feist's voice, which one smitten critic famously suggested resembled "a satin bag full of crushed mirrors", sounds fantastic, the stripped-back arrangement brings the noisy A Commotion into far sharper focus than on record, even the fragile Caught a Long Wind survives the transition intact. She's hugely engaging between songs, attempting to get the audience to sing in harmony, but it's not until she breaks out The Reminder's joyous I Feel It All that the mood of the music lifts. Prior to that, even the winsome paen to domesticity Mushaboom is recast to fit the prevailing tone of melancholy, the melody of the verses changed to something darker and bluesier, the metre of the chorus altered, the rhythm provided by the drummer walloping his kit with what appear to be two planks of wood. Unlike the original version, you wouldn't consider using the end result on an advert for Silentnight beds, which might be the point. After all, she doesn't want to end up back in the arenas.
The Horrors - Roundhouse, London - 16 October 2011
The bass is so loud it makes your split ends try to wander off by themselves. Sickly green lights strafe the crowd as beats pinball round the curved walls. We are not at some hip subterranean warehouse night, though, but in Camden's civilised Roundhouse, an arts venue whose generously supported cupola recalls the inside view of a whale's ribcage. And the band onstage are the Horrors, a recovering garage-punk outfit not previously known for their loose hips and sub-bass.
They began in Southend, routinely chased down the street for having pointy boots and funny hair. Had there been a publication called the Good Goth Guide, the Horrors would have been the star 2007 entry, thanks to their fusion of the ur-punk of the late 1960s, the iconoclasm of the Jesus & Mary Chain and a love for all manner of obscure vinyl. They covered songs by Screaming Lord Sutch, their early videos were directed by gore-hound Chris Cunningham, and they remained an acquired taste, when they were not the butt of cruel jokes.
In short, you wouldn't normally expect men this tall, thin, chippy and black-clad to be leading a rush to the dancefloor. In the old taxonomy of Britain's music tribes, pipecleaner limbs and leather jackets pretty much guaranteed a predilection for analogue head music rather than electronic body music.
And yet there are times tonight when the Horrors come to the verge of a rave breakdown. "Sea Within a Sea" is the closing track of their second album, 2009's Primary Colours - the woozy psychedelic record for a new label, XL, that transformed this five-piece from irritants who looked weird, even in their adopted east London, into an acclaimed art-rock outfit. Tonight, what used to be an extended freak-out reminiscent of German experimentalists Can inches its way towards a techno denouement, one that falls just short of materialising.
When drummer Joe Spurgeon (known as Coffin Joe in the early days) is not thrashing away, he lets loose shuffling rock-dance beats that used to be known, in the late 80s, as baggy. The encore, too, begins intriguingly, with ravey synth lines and boofing percussion. "Moving Further Away", from their most recent album, Skying, finds bassist Rhys (formerly Spider) Webb shaking actual maracas while inventive guitarist Joshua Hayward (aka Vom Grimm) makes his instrument sound like a pylon with a bellyache.
Soon the song begins to build - creating the kind of sonic tension used to titivate sweat-monkeys on dancefloors the world over. When the Horrors crest, it's as a guitar band, with a deafening crash of effects pedals. No one drops the bass.
There are few thrills as visceral in pop as tension released in an unexpected way, but the Horrors have other tricks up their sleeves as well. They have songs that are not quite one thing or the other, neither fish nor fowl. There's something peculiarly compelling about singer Faris Badwan's aggressive delivery of succour on bittersweet songs such as their set-opener, "Changing the Rain".
Then there's the Horrors' core need to make a racket, however far they have come from Southend. Every track they play tonight is accompanied by some predatory background womb-song, produced by guitar effects laden upon effects laden upon Tom Cowan's keyboards. Skying takes its title from this heady upward swing. Sometimes, the din can get as ear-ringing as My Bloody Valentine's reunion show here in 2008; sometimes, these passsages can get a bit long-winded. At the heart of all the teasing, yelling and skying, though, are the melodies - the reason that the Horrors have a top-five album on their hands. Songs such as "I Can See Through You" find this band of outsiders making catchy pop out of their disdain.
You could argue that the Horrors miss a trick by not cutting loose and turning into the Primal Scream of Screamadelica (another band who started off with leather jackets and a psychedelic fixation before coming around to the derangement of dance music). But this extended tease - will they or won't they let fly some beats - remains an impressive strategy. It is true, too, to what you suspect might have been the Horrors' original brief: look cool, and keep 'em guessing.
Roddy Frame - Deaf Institute, Manchester - 14 October 2011
"Is everyone alright up there?" asks Roddy Frame, eyeing the venue's miniscule balcony. "It's just like the Palladium in here." Hardly, but the Scottish singer-songwriter has been daring to dream ever since his old band Aztec Camera's 1983 debut, High Land, Hard Rain, catapulted him from East Kilbride to international stardom when he was just 19. Appearances are rarer now, but his enduring reputation as one of the finest songwriters of the last 30 years means gigs like this are a white-hot ticket.
The Frame of 2011 isn't the political idealist who once offered his help to the National Union of Mineworkers, but a romantic wordsmith who documents love's ups and downs with guitars, big tunes and words as poetically beautiful as "Clusters of heavenly jewels, gaze down on Earth's lonely fools."
With his perfect quiff, soaring croon, stunning fingerpicking and chiming jangles, Frame could almost be Morrissey and Marr inhabiting the same body. In plain black shirt, the handsome 47-year-old looks absurdly youthful, eschewing the Postcard Records-era fashion sense inspired by Mark E Smith's tank tops, and visibly thrilled to be back.
"I'm not prolific," he quips, perhaps unwittingly explaining his career stops and starts. But the new White Pony - inspired by the late film-maker John Hughes's mentoring of a young girl - sounds every bit as skyscraping as the oldies. From Oblivious to a tear-jerking Down the Dip, they tumble forth in an embarrassment of riches. When the crowd sing the first verse of Walk Out to Winter, you fear grown men will start weeping, but a euphoric Somewhere in My Heart suggests Frame is the sound of forever-young Scotland, immortalised by the belief: "The closest thing to heaven is to rock'n'roll."
Spiritualized - Royal Albert Hall, London - 13 October 2011
If Spiritualized were ever to scale down their epic music, the time would be now. Having been effectively housebound for the past year by a debilitating programme of medical treatment, Jason Pierce has recorded the band's upcoming, as-yet-unnamed next album on a laptop, stripped of their usual studio accoutrements.
It is clearly business-as-usual live, however, with Pierce taking to the stage alongside more than 50 musicians, including a black-clad choir and a small orchestra. Despite being their leader, he sits unobtrusively to one side: scruffy and inscrutable behind his shades, he could easily be a stray session guitarist.
Against Pierce's better instincts, two years ago Spiritualized toured their classic 1997 album, Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space, in its entirety. Tonight, he is in no mood for such nostalgic populism. We get nothing from that record or from 2008's colossal Songs in A&E.
Instead, the show's first hour is comprised entirely of new material. It may be new, but it also sounds instantly familiar. Little Girl mines one of Spiritualized's familiar tropes of gospel voices used for venal means, and virtuoso guitarist Doggen ladles white noise over the cacophonic Heading for the Top. The simultaneously raw and grandiose You Get What You Deserve is strung-out opiate blues; I Am What I Am is Dr John-style voodoo blues.
Rewarding the crowd's patience, Pierce returns with a lengthy encore of relatively obscure old numbers, climaxing with the wig-out of his first band Spacemen 3's Take Me to the Other Side and the gospel delirium of Oh Happy Day. The songs may be polar opposites, but both ache with a profundity that is joyous.
Rihanna - O2, London - 9 October 2011
Rihanna is sitting astride a giant pink anti-aircraft gun singing "Hard", a dun-coloured cape draped over her mirror-ball minidress. Below, a bevy of dancers dressed like All Saints contrives to make desert warfare sexy. Boom! goes the gun, volleying into the crowd a T-shirt singed faintly by cordite. Over the course of the night, Rihanna will reach greater altitudes above sea level than this. For the encore she's up on a platform suspended high in the air. But posing moodily on a gun is probably the creative high point of the Loud tour's stagecraft. We have humour, innuendo, presposterous juxtapositions, hot pink and khaki. And weapons! Weapons are always good.
The remainder of tonight's set, however, languishes in a sticky smear of random raunch and roll-on, roll-off scenery. With 10 sold-out O2s, a mighty six-single run from Loud, her last album, and a new single, "We Found Love", almost certainly going to No 1 as you read this, you would have hoped that Rihanna could stretch to a spectacle with real flair. There could have been a "concept", perhaps, to provide some hermeneutic rigour linking all the crash test dummies ("Shut up and Drive") with the egg made of scaffolding that hatches the star on "Only Girl (in the World)".
Lady Gaga's Monster Ball tour, for instance, followed the fortunes of Gaga and dancers in their quest to get to some party or other. Katy Perry's tour set off on a mission involving a lost cat that could keep a symposium of psychoanalysts busy for days. Spectacle should be absolutely key. Kylie has wowed with fountains. No one is quite asking for Muse's conspiracy theory space odyssey, but hell, even Justin Bieber flew around a bit.
Rihanna's show, by contrast, feels more like a night spent zapping randomly through pop video channels, a display in which costume changes and multiple video screens are stuck together with a weak glue made of smut.
There are some terrific songs here, and an intriguing star, let down by a baffling lack of creativity from Team Ri. Take Rihanna's excellent single, "Man Down". It sounds like a cover of some righteous old reggae murder ballad. Instead, it's a Rihanna original in which the Barbadian regrets gunning down her assailant. It fairly pings with context, thanks to the assault Rihanna suffered at the hands of former boyfriend Chris Brown. She sings it with bittersweet menace, but why is there the bonnet of a broken truck cluttering up the middle of the stage?
At least everyone understands the smutty bits (everyone, perhaps, except the Northern Irish DUP councillor Alan Graham, who ordered Rihanna to cover up on his farm last month). But long before that farmer unexpectedly found a muck-spreader in his field, fans and detractors alike have known that Rihanna is a one-woman SlutWalk.
Albums called Good Girl Gone Bad and songs called "S&M" have formed part of her public persona for some time. But does she have to be so predictable with it? Most female pop performers feature some variation on the "lap-dancing with audience member" theme. Rihanna is no exception. Her straddling of some random pasty bloke comes at the end of a sequence set in a sex dungeon.
Watching Rihanna enact convoluted S&M scenarios in front of an audience that includes children is one thing. It's quite another when the soundtrack is "Darling Nikki" by Prince - a very good song turned bad by Rihanna's band and their ugly riffage. Now that's just wrong. The bouncers should intervene, as they do in real dungeons when the clients overstep the mark.
Shut your eyes tonight and the hits remain almost peerless. The highlight is probably "Cheers (Drink to That)", a fantastically bruised anthem about getting wasted that Rihanna kicks off by downing a shot. The song actually mimics the effects of a few beers, making a happy crowd even warmer and more fuzzy.
It's hard to knock "Rude Boy", her singsong inquiry into the state of a suitor's erectile capacity. As ever, any drift into the Caribbean makes Rihanna even more appealing. Need we discuss the hookiness of "What's My Name?", a tune so nagging that two-year-olds can sing the "ooh nan na" chorus? Rihanna struts, dances, preens, poses and tosses her hair engagingly throughout. She is gushing in her praise for London. We have a "unique energy", apparently - the kind of good vibes that prompted her to come to Greenwich on the Jubilee line.
A surfeit of rock, a dearth of humour and below-par staging are real problems, though. Why the endless guitar solos? This is a pop show, with some vestigial R&B stylings; there is no need for a scrawny longhair to widdle all over the place. The set's one technical innovation is a travelator that whisks Rihanna from right to left. Examining pop spectacles for meaning can be a futile game, but it's a crying shame that Rihanna's show's lasting metaphor is to be found in a glorified conveyor belt.
NME Radar Tour - Rescue Rooms, Nottingham - 7 October 2011
Previously throwing up next big things from La Roux to Hurts, the biannual NME Radar Tour is a reliable barometer of the health of rising pop. However, this year, with few new acts breaking and record companies trying every trick short of glueing feathers on their bands to get them off the ground in recessionary Britain, this usually hot-ticket tour is struggling in small venues. Which is a shame, because you can see a genuinely exciting band. From Sweden, Niki and the Dove feature neither a Niki or a white bird. Instead, Björk-ish frontwoman Malin Dahlström bounces about in an outfit that looks as if it were thrown together in a smash 'n' grab raid on Oxfam, while the threesome's music similarly hurls together percussion, electro, goth and pop. It's dramatic and headrushing, and songs as great as DJ Ease My Mind give them every chance of success.
London's S.C.U.M. have recently released a fine debut album, Again Into Eyes, but struggle to replicate it. Another of those dark, intense young bands pop has been throwing up from Modern English to the Horrors, besuited frontman Thomas Cohen (implausibly, a pretty-boy Nick Cave) is almost invisible in blackness and only the superb Whitechapel escapes an aural fog.
They'd do well to follow the example of headliners Wolf Gang. Only months ago, Max McElligott peered nervously from the stage. Now, with his dapper scarf, he looks and sings like a star. Their exuberant, Simple Minds-meets-Vampire Weekend pop increasingly rouses the audience into adoration. There are bigger mysteries than why the sublime Lions in Cages wasn't a massive hit, but maybe there's still time.
Tony Bennett - London Palladium - 4 October 2011
This is how to do it. At 85, Tony Bennett scampers on to the Palladium stage in a perfectly pressed suit, a folded red hankie in his breast pocket - and before he sings a note, gets a standing ovation. Made by an audience who scream like Justin Bieber fans, rather than the respectable elders they appear to be, it is a rather premature reaction. But what follows deserves it: a 75-minute masterclass in how to entertain.
His microphone held low in his hand like a louche cigarette, Bennett's subtlety as a singer is still astonishing live. He sings like he is speaking, shooting the breeze, every syllable still peculiarly weighty with meaning and emotion. His voice is not betrayed by his age, and he still masters the tough notes, growling with revenge in I Wanna Be Around, hollering about how "the devil kicks" on Sing, You Sinners. These moments remind us of a very different Tony who has long faded in memory - the washed-up drug addict of the 1970s, who talked about helping Amy Winehouse through her troubles, in several interviews, just weeks before her death.
Winehouse is not mentioned tonight, although her father, Mitch, is in the audience - as is the strange mix of comic Noel Fielding, Adam Ant, actor Andrew Sachs and Moira Stuart, proving that here we have a singer who unites all kinds of people. Bennett's duetting partners tonight also nod towards the past and the present. Jazz veteran Cleo Laine, now 84, hobbles on stage for a touching if shaky run through The Way You Look Tonight; later on, Leona Lewis, dressed like an old-fashioned starlet in sky-blue sequins, only gels with her partner when she holds back the decibels. Bennett's effortless command of light and shade point out the problem modern vocalists have: many approach singing like a sport, rather than a method of human interaction.
Bennett embraces his audience consummately, too. Every "you" is sung to them; he salutes from the brow when they clap; no gesture seems false. He also jokes about the timeliness of singing the Gershwin song Who Cares? - with its lines about "millions of firms going under" - and calls himself and Rosemary Clooney "the original American idols". We also get dancing: 360-degree spins during Who's Got the Last Laugh Now? and a whole routine before I Left My Heart in San Francisco.
And then comes his encore to end all encores. Microphone off, Bennett sings Fly Me to the Moon. "They don't build theatres like these any more," he beams, "they just build filing cabinets." His voice soars around the stalls, the boxes, the circles; it feels as if their echoes will be heard forever more.
Bombay Bicycle Club - Dome, Brighton - 2 October 2011
Kitty Muggeridge's famous line about how David Frost rose without trace could just as easily be applied to Bombay Bicycle Club. Not in the bitchy way that Muggeridge intended, but more as a statement of fact. Here we are, four years, three albums and 10 singles into their career, sales respectable rather than earth-shattering, venue nevertheless packed, but could you close your eyes and picture what the north London quartet look like? Perhaps tonight's crowd could - they are so eager to demonstrate their enthusiasm for the band's oeuvre that a mosh pit intermittently erupts, often to some profoundly unmoshable music - but you do look at the anonymous figures on stage and wonder.
On tonight's evidence, part of the issue might be that Bombay Bicycle Club can still sound like a band casting around amid the currents of alt-rock in search of a style: a bit of post Vampire Weekend African-inspired guitar here, a hint of the Killers in a keyboard line there, a sprinkling of shoegazing revival effects-pedal overload. Open Door is post-Libertines indie rock ordinaire, while Ivy and Gold, a track from their acoustic album Flaws, sounds like post-Mumfords folksiness. Still, if anyone in the indie firmament has a calling to dabble with banjos and vaguely trad arr melodies, it's guitarist Jamie MacColl, grandson of the British folk revival's original power couple Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger.
Whether this is evidence of musical restlessness and admirable diversity or the sound of a band for whom success came before they developed an identity of their own is an arguable point, although you can see why people like them. Whatever, or rather whoever, they sound like, it is all decorated with decent tunes - and intermittently, signs of something unique flash out. Cheeringly, those signs are mostly from recent album A Different Kind of Fix. Single Shuffle is based around a weird piano sample, equal parts Italian house screamer and pub sing-along. How Can You Swallow So Much Sleep demonstrates an intriguingly off-kilter approach to pop songwriting: the tune sort of sidles up to you and then insinuates its way under your skin. More of that and their rise could continue, and in a more distinct manner than it has thus far.