Jamie Woon – review

XOYO, London

You could probably build a lunar station out of the discarded CDs of hopeful new artists whose early offerings fail to take off. Four years ago, a strange little track emerged, seemingly from nowhere – a hypnotic, spacious rendition of "Wayfaring Stranger", an American folk song with gospel undertones, sung by a British singer called Jamie Woon. Little was known of him.

"Wayfaring Stranger" caused few ripples; then Woon went quiet. Nothing happened. But my thin, worn one-track CD of "Wayfaring Stranger" survived multiple culls of the CDs by other obscure artists on a hiding to nothing. Woon's "Wayfaring Stranger" was not like anything else being touted by record companies at the time, or even by hip leftfield sources. It was old-fashioned, but urban; catholic, but unsettling.

Then, at the start of 2008, a dread‑laden remix of "Wayfaring Stranger" by dubstep hotshot Burial gathered considerably more attention. That upswelling of enthusiasm for the mournful, memorably-named boy-man was soon followed by… very little. Woon toured with Amy Winehouse at some point; which could well have put him off the music industry entirely.

And then, suddenly: a burst of activity. Last year, new tracks began trickling out online. Moreover, there seemed to be two Woons on the scene – the haunted soul of "Wayfaring Stranger", now building a track entirely from looped samples of his own voice (the stunning "Spirits"), now hymning the otherworldly magic of the dark in "Night Air"… and some other guy.

This doppelganger Woon was a more polished, conventional soul singer-songwriter whose output – such as "Missing Person" – hinted at a considerable talent, but one pootling underwhelmingly down the middle of the road.

Woon, it soon became apparent, was no dubstep margin-walker, but a Brit School graduate whose conventional chops would almost certainly be enough to set him up as a male version of Adele, or even the thinking person's Taio Cruz. But Woon likes his gear; his appetite for effects and manipulations finds him on common ground with the sonic adventuring of dubstep.

Tonight, Becoming Real, a post-dubstep noise-bringer who can lay some claim to being one of the better "new Burials" (in that he is being talked about outside south London bass circles) plays immediately before Woon; there is a convincing bleed from his crowd into Woon's.

Live, Woon and his doppelganger rub up against each other intriguingly. The linen-shirted, floppy-fringed 27-year-old who bounds on to the over-lit stage has none of the passive aggression that normally accompanies the music of London's desolate pre-dawn. He is almost too engaging, the victim of a mystique bypass.

A little mystery usually goes hand-in-hand with music like this – low-key, intimate derivatives of R&B of the kind recently disseminated by bands such as the xx. Woon is not like the xx, exactly; nor is he a copyist (he was, after all, doing spartan intimacy four years ago). But the success of the xx has retuned the ear of the general public to these more evolved frequencies, making Woon very much one to watch for 2011 alongside James Blake, another post-dubstep, post-xx fellow traveller in soulful sound. Live, the xx are shy, verging on truculent. Woon, by contrast, is outgoing, relaxed, and even has his own football chant, sung from the crowd: "Wooney!"

His only gig this year (sold out) finds Woon's conventional talent performing an extended courtship ritual with his less conventional production values. "Lady Luck" – his next single, Woon says – has something of the barbershop quartet about it, all tish-tock rhythms and a little burble of a keyboard melody playing off against Woon's rich vocal. But it lacks that haunting quality that makes Woon such a compelling new talent.

The human beatboxing, chorusing "Spirits" is tremendous, by contrast; built up so that Woon adds a whole gang of Woons to the soundscape already contested between him and his doppelganger. While "Spirits" (and an amazing "Wayfaring Stranger") amount to a kind of hi-tech a cappella; the rest of the set, by contrast, features a live drummer and two keyboard/laptop players conjuring up backing tracks that remain remarkably spacious.

"Night Air", Woon's best-known track, is more complex and developed than the beautiful, hush-released single version, meandering along enticingly before ending in a surprise funk-bass workout.

There are details to iron out here if Woon is to challenge Blake for the post-xx pound. Ultimately, Woon's considerable appeal boils down to his unflagging sense of rhythm – not just the handclaps and finger-clicks, but his effortless roll and sway – and his tight control over the spaces in his languid music. At its best – and we get fleeting glimpses of greatness on virtually every track tonight – Woon takes the maligned pop-soul genre somewhere special, making the overly-familiar unfamiliar once more.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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