Clare Maguire takes to the stage wearing a red dress made entirely of fringe – an outfit that says "cathouse lampshade" perhaps more than it does "breakout success of 2011". And yet Maguire is a singer whose fortunes in the coming year seem assured.
Around two years ago, Maguire was a 19-year-old with a big voice and a busy MySpace page, evidence of a label scramble which, at its height, involved the Brummie downing multiple shots while being wooed by Jay-Z. Having signed with Universal for an undisclosed sum, Maguire has been shut away "in development" for the past two years. She has finally broken cover with a smattering of live dates, a run-up to the release of her debut single, "Ain't Nobody" – not the Chaka Khan song – in a fortnight.
You cannot argue with Maguire's voice, a full-blooded force that obviates the need for air con in the first few rows of Rock City. She covers Fleetwood Mac's "Looking Out for Love" gustily, playing up the mating cries of "ooh" and "ah". But what steeliness "Ain't Nobody" might boast as an online stream is lost here, thanks to her backing band. Their rapport with their singer suggests they met in the car park half an hour ago.
It is, of course, too early to come to any lasting conclusions about an artist still wearing L-plates somewhere under her frock; Maguire's debut album, overseen by Fraser T Smith (Ellie Goulding, Tinchy Stryder) is still six months from release. But Maguire's set tonight seems stilted, and more middle-of-the-road than is strictly necessary for a vocalist so gifted.
Whatever Maguire's fate next year, few British artists will have had as satisfying a 2010 as Ben Drew, the 26-year-old who records as Plan B. He has just received a record 11 nominations for the UK music video awards on the back of a No 1 album and two top 10 singles. Next week, B will play two sold-out nights at London's 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy. Next spring, he's at the O2 Arena – not far, as the siren wails, from his troubled childhood home in Forest Gate, east London, but a paradigm shift away from the nervy demi-monde of casual violence Drew documented in his raw, rapped debut, Who Needs Actions When You Got Words (2006). Two of these old songs – "Charmaine" and "Mama (Loves a Crackhead)" – are almost unrecognisable tonight.
For anyone else who has been "in development" for the past year, Plan B effectively swapped his early comparisons with Eminem for more lucrative comparisons with Amy Winehouse, deftly reinventing himself as sweet-voiced Strickland Banks, a fictional blue-eyed soul singer whose lack of restraint lands him in the soup. His travails unfurl across 13 winning tracks brimming with retro soul vigour.
But before Plan B's feelgood Motown party can power up tonight, Drew appears, alone, to show off his human beatbox skills. The crowd love it, especially when Drew renders the muffled crux of Reel 2 Real's "Move It" with the microphone jammed into the side of his neck.
But this hip-hop sideshow cuts valuable gig time, and Drew is forced to rush the encore. Curtailed or not, Drew is terrific, fully inhabiting his Strickland persona with deft soul-man twirls and a tight-cut suit whose restrictions could be responsible for Drew's angelic falsetto, the sweet yin to his rapper's grimy yang.
There are a couple of false starts on new track "Make Me Your Religion"; Nottingham is just the first stop on this valedictory tour. But Drew's band are an otherwise sublime unit, pumping out vintage sunshine as Drew shuffles the Defamation tracklisting. "The Recluse" – released as a single last week – could well be the happiest-sounding song ever about hiding out unwashed in a jail cell, fearful for your life.
He premieres "Every Rule", another new song; its urgency suggests there is plenty more Strickland Banks left in Plan B. But Banks may have to wait: Drew has just finished shooting his directorial debut, Ill Manors, having already spun an acting career playing hard nuts (in Adulthood, Harry Brown and 22.214.171.124) out of his soundtrack work.
"Every Rule" is about "trying to be a good man", B notes – an explanation that could neatly sum up his best work. Even amid all the graphic underage sex and drugs of his debut, Drew took a firm moral stance. On "Prayin", another standout moment, Strickland Banks entreats God's forgiveness (sadly, there's no time for "Darkest Place", the tune in which Banks shoots God down in a blaze of existential hurt Philip Pullman might recognise).
Best of all, though, is that frantic encore, "Stay Too Long". Drew's two backing singers issue warning "ooohs" like a Greek chorus, ramping up the tension while Drew pogos around the stage, rapping like fury. Frankly, he could have stayed longer.