Plan B | Pop review

Brixton Academy, London

The rise and rise of Plan B is one of the music stories of 2010. Only a year ago, Londoner Ben Drew was a talented but commercially underperforming rapper, spitting tales of urban paranoia in a patois-heavy guttural rasp. One Amy Winehouse Back to Black-style breakthrough album later, Drew's star is spectacularly in the ascendant.

The record in question is The Defamation of Strickland Banks, the magnificently nuanced concept album and exercise in retro-soul that hit No 1 and spawned three top 20 singles, but Drew is clearly yet to come to terms with its success. "I can't believe I'm doing Brixton two nights in a row in a fucking Armani suit!" he gloats, staring out at the sold-out Academy. "Me, from east London! A no-hoper!"

The Strickland Banks album tells the fictional story of a soul singer who is falsely convicted of the rape of a besotted fan and is then terrorised in jail due to his fame and undeserved reputation as a sex offender. Live, Drew has chosen to play out this psychodrama via a Stax-style revue band, complete with occasional sax and swaying backing singers.

For all of its conceptual and narrative flair, the album stands apart for the remarkable quality of its songwriting, which owes a debt to the visceral sweet pop-soul of such Motown greats as Smokey Robinson. As a soul man, Drew has passion and gravitas, whether easing his lush contralto into the sumptuous throb of Writing's on the Wall or testifying through the despairing Prayin' like Al Green at his most racked and transported.

Drew cuts a curious figure, prowling through the ranks of his band as if about to challenge them to a fight, but his belligerent demeanour adds the requisite edge of menace to claustrophobic prison songs such as Welcome to Hell and The Recluse. The carnal She Said even survives what can only be described as an outbreak of interpretative dancing by two men in warders' uniforms, who frogmarch Drew into the wings as the set ends.

He returns, triumphant, to croon through a mini-set of Robinson, Ben E King and Bill Withers Motown standards, then explodes into the funk-soul maelstrom of his album's pivotal track, Stay Too Long, careering around the crowded stage like a human pinball and leaping on the band's backs as he yells its barbed words of furious hedonistic abandon. It has been a magnificent performance, and yet the evidence of his recent quantum leap suggests that the best of Plan B is yet to come.


Ian Gittins

The GuardianTramp

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