Emeli Sandé – review

Koko, London

You don't get to say this most Decembers, but next year's surefire musical bet is an Aberdonian neuroscience drop-out with a tattoo of Frida Kahlo on her arm and a peroxide cockatiel quiff. Like Jessie J and Adele before her, singer Emeli Sandé seems to have the new year all sewn up before it has even begun.

Her debut single, "Heaven", went to No 2 last August, following a series of writing credits and "featuring" guest spots on hits by grime artists. She went one better with "Read All About It", a Professor Green chart‑topper on which Sandé belted out the show‑stealing choruses.

Tonight's sold-out gig ends Sandé's debut UK tour, to which dates were added to keep up with demand. Last month, she opened for half of Coldplay in a church in east London, hitting the notes so hard that she rendered the Little Noise Sessions's PA utterly redundant. Next year, she is set to tour stadiums with the UK's premier rock export. Her debut album, Our Version of Events, is due out in February. There are no fewer than 11 photographers in the pit tonight, trying to capture Sandé as she lurches around, wearing out the flooring.

Even by the overinflated lung standards of our times, Sandé has a mighty set of pipes. Her hands work hard, too, pointing hither and thither like Fresh Meat's Vod giving directions to an A&R man lost in rural Scotland. According to her record company press release, her father is Zambian, her mother is Cumbrian, but Sandé could easily be Italian, with all that gesticulating.

Thankfully, from her first song in – "Tiger" – Sandé doesn't bother too much with the overdramatic, X Factor version of singing that tends to go with big pipes and jazz hands. She gets to the notes promptly, and with force. On "Heaven", Sandé recalls the cool and collected emoting of Shara Nelson. But that's mostly because the song itself recalls Massive Attack's "Unfinished Sympathy"; it ends tonight's set on a high.

The rest of the time, Sandé picks and chooses from a variety of different forebears, all the while exuding a confidence that cancels the debt. She plays a mean piano, like her early role model, Alicia Keys. Sandé supported Keys at her Royal Albert Hall gig earlier this year and the two have since written a song together, "Hope", a fairly po-faced plea for, well, hope, that sorely lacks the twinkle of, say, Jessie J's set-the-world-to-rights anthem, "Price Tag".

Sandé's much sharper at story-songs about men, bad and good. "Daddy" is her intriguing current single. It's a cautionary tale of the perils of loving bad boys, while the churchy "Next to Me" hymns a partner's constancy. As its title suggests, "Next to Me" has the ring of future inescapability about it, with people mouthing along after only a few lines.

Sandé is, then, the kind of artist who slots nicely into both the X Factor and Jools Holland formats. Success will simply be a matter of not messing up. But you don't begrudge her any of it. Even if her Kahlo tattoo is hidden under a demure dress tonight, there is more going on with this singer than immediately meets the ear.

Sandé has done a complex courtship dance with the industry since her teens, having signed a publishing deal at the age of 16. She followed up various talent show wins by turning down recording offers in favour of studying medicine at Glasgow, specialising in neuroscience. In interviews, she can lucidly discuss things such as dyspraxia or the prevalence of bipolar conditions in the arts.

Having shelved her immediate pop ambitions, Sandé honed her songwriting skills in a partnership with grime producer Shahid "Naughty Boy" Khan. After they gave a song called "Diamond Rings" to Chipmunk and it went to No 6, the industry came calling. She and Khan have since penned songs for artists as diverse as Leona Lewis and Susan Boyle, frequently at the behest of Syco, the label run by The X Factor's Simon Cowell, who has called Sandé his "favourite songwriter at the moment".

The focus is now on Sandé herself. On the evidence of 13 songs and a medley of her guest spots tonight, Sandé suffers a little from being too grown up, too ready with the mid‑paced songs about relationships, while, at 24, she is young enough to be making exciting R&B tracks.

But she begins another one of those seriously nagging songs about relationships – "Suitcase" – by accurately calling Dolly Parton a genius. "Suitcase" may not be up there with Parton's "Jolene", but it tells a story of the end of love with detail and feeling. Talking of detail – Emeli is her middle name, by the way. Her real first name, perhaps serendipitously, is Adele.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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