Newton Faulkner | Pop review

Union Chapel, London

Newton Faulkner seemed a whimsical choice to headline the final night of the annual Mencap Little Noise series – previous shows had featured more obvious star turns such as Florence + the Machine and Mika. An unprepossessing singer-guitarist who bagged a surprise No 1 album in 2007 with Hand Built by Robots, Faulkner is arguably better known for his waist-length ginger dreadlocks than his music, which errs on the side of folk-lite innocuousness.

Most people would be hard-pressed to name a single Faulkner song, though they might know three or four by tonight's support act, Scouting for Girls. It seemed Faulkner was on the bill because the organiser, Radio 1 DJ Jo Whiley, likes him. "He is charm personified," she told us before he sauntered into view.

Charming was the word. His stage act may have been low budget and packed with touches only fellow guitarists would appreciate, such as the camera trained on his foot pedals (to prove he creates all the sounds himself, he explained), but he was eminently likable. "It's downhill for the rest of the evening," were his first words, paving the way for an hour of droll self-deprecation with tunes thrown in. "Look at my feet," he commanded. "It's better than looking at my face." You got the impression that Faulkner took up the guitar to shield himself from the playground bullying dished out to ginger-haired kids, and has never stopped feeling like a target, even with a second successful album, Rebuilt by Humans, to his name.

He also displayed a delectable sense of the ridiculous. To give the song Won't Let Go an extra fillip, he put a cassette tape into a player and strummed along to an oompah melody he had lifted from GarageBand software. Later, he announced "an idea I thought I'd try out" – an acoustic version of Bohemian Rhapsody, with all vocal parts. Oddly, the audience treated it as a serious take on the Queen classic, failing to smile even when Faulkner hit the apex of hysteria with: "Bismillah, we will not let you go!"

An intimate knowledge of his music wasn't necessary to enjoy the skittering finger-picking of his one real hit, Dream Catch Me, nor did you need to know the words to feel fuzzily uplifted by Let's Get Together's hippyish positivity. Secure in his musical ability, he was free to go off on fanciful tangents that resulted in fruitful surprises, such as a delicate medley of Blackstreet's No Diggity and Massive Attack's Teardrop. Faulkner made it easy to enjoy his music by being so amiable; to dislike it or him would have been unthinkable. A shoo-in for sweetest gig of 2009.


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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