Olly Murs, removed from the rude mechanics of The X Factor, is on his first UK solo tour. In his words we're "back darn sarf" at London's Hammersmith Apollo. Formed of crumbling bricks and worn velvet, the venue wasn't built for tweens and hens and their disregard for seating, but that's what we have here tonight. At least The X Factor's plastic fold-down seating wasn't climb‑overable.
Essex-born Murs, 27, was runner-up on the 2009 X Factor, but one of three contestants to get signed by Cowell. In a marked U-turn, he was given almost full creative licence by Cowell to unleash his brand of pop-reggae on to a nation of baffled pop purists.
The resulting 2010 album was an accumulation of everything he had learned from the show: one-third zippy vanilla ska and two-thirds whimsical pop, kowtowing to the blandness of his contemporaries. It wasn't a bad album if you like reggae but are afraid of it, and think badabababas are worthwhile choruses.
He starts the show dressed in a white shirt, his massive thighs squeezed into tight, buttermilk chinos. But the trademark trilby is absent. Where's the trilby? For the love of God, 40% of the crowd have one. No time though, he's already leapt into "A Change is Gonna Come", essentially George Michael's "Freedom! '90" by a cut-price Robbie Williams. With no pause it's on to "Thinking of Me", his second single, which charted at No 4. It's better – a slowed down, reggae-lite track which nods to the Police and, as a child of the 90s, presumably Skatman. Then comes the pop-swing of "I Blame Hollywood", Murs's reflection on a failed run-in with Tinseltown. Like Michael Buble minus the self-awareness.
So far, so consummate, but there's no movement. He just wags his finger or beckons the audience, his hand flicking like a small, sweaty bird. It doesn't help that the seven-piece band, trussed up like bovver boys in braces, are collectively better looking than him. After all, Murs is a funny-looking chap. Part Lee Evans, part puffy-Rafe Spall, his mouth full of tongue, his forehead veiled in sweat.
Murs's fall-back is to perform covers palatable to all. Loosened up, his rendition of Madness's "It Must Be Love" is good, devalued slightly by Murs's buttery voice (and by his decision to appropriate "birds" so as to mean the female crowd), but a cover of Jason Mraz's "I'm Yours", sung with an acoustic guitar, is beyond parody. Still, it gives us a chance to go to the bar.
The staging so far has been odd. Backed by Warholian Vespa images in red, white and blue, it screams faux-Quadrophenia. Granted, it's his look, but it seems dicey for a mainstream white boy performing reggae.
Murs vanishes for two minutes but returns all smiles. His new backdrop is minimal, his new shirt plum and silky, his new trousers even tighter, and he has a hat. Finally. We can all sleep easy. Pepped up, he launches into a Stevie Wonder medley which is the evening's highlight – words one never expects to write. "Superstition" was his X Factor audition song. It's markedly improved but also allows his capable band to indulge themselves. "Sir Duke" is lost slightly on the crowd but no matter, Murs is well into his stride, leaping deftly around the stage. Evidently his hat has restorative powers. "Isn't She Lovely" is good, almost great, especially when young Holly, a superfan in a "I Heart Olly Murs" hoodie, is called up on stage. The poor lamb is overcome.
His new single, "Busy", out tomorrow, sees Murs harping on about bacon and eggs and DVDs in his typical, upbeat style. But by now he's won us all.
Murs's strength is knowing his crowd. Hours before he'd tweeted he'd be going to Nando's. An online frenzy ensued. Then, mid-show, he demands the house lights come up twice, first so he could coo at his people and then, so he could paw over the placards like John Noakes going through the Blue Peter gallery. The whole show is so neat and rehearsed, a calculated stab at fun that dissolves like aspirin into the air. The crowd loves it.
Losing out to Joe McElderry saved Olly Murs. Lovely McElderry, unready for fame, was failed by SyCo's machine and subsequently dropped. Murs was popular with the mums who forgot to vote. But now here he is, 10 hours after news broke of his renewed contract, on stage, reeking of gratitude.
I think the woman next to me speaks for us all: "Ooh, but he's better than that Matt Cardle. Better face, better songs, better hats."