Emeli Sandé – review

Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

"This year has been incredible for me. It has been a dream come true," gushes Emeli Sandé. Since first coming to the world's attention in 2009 via guest spots with rappers Chipmunk and Wiley, then landing the 2012 Brits Critic's Choice award (previously won by Adele), she has triumphed at both Olympic ceremonies and seen her debut, Our Version of Events, become the biggest-selling album of this year. Along the way, she has won praise from Alicia Keys and survived it from Simon Cowell, and been hailed by the New York Times for her "weapons grade" voice.

In the revealing acoustics of the Bridgewater Hall, the elfin 24-year-old Scottish-Zambian shows what a stunning instrument it really is. She brings a sense of drama to the opener, Daddy, using her arms like a conductor to work up the prerequisite head of steam to hit the high notes, yet managing an endearing quiver at the bottom end of her range.

However, those chops aren't always best served by material that has one foot in retro soul and the other in reality TV, thanks to her past penning tunes for Cheryl Cole and Susan Boyle. Although Sandé's lyrics can be refreshingly daft (Breaking the Law tells of resorting to shoplifting to please an older sister, and in new song Pluto she banishes her "liability" heart to a distant planet), many of them endlessly string together cliches and platitudes. Mountains are moved or climbed and lovers pack suitcases – although, to her credit, she has so far managed to avoid crying in the rain.

Still, she powers the big choruses with such passion and sincerity that even Wonder, which could soundtrack a public information broadcast about disease ("This light is contagious, go tell your neighbours") goes down a storm.

Give her a great song, though, and she soars – she turns the 1967 civil rights anthem I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free into a gritty, uplifting showstopper. There's more empowerment in Read All About It, the terrific Heaven has shades of Shara Nelson's mighty performance on Massive Attack's Unfinished Sympathy and the uplifting, gospel/R&B Next to Me turns the audience into a giant choir.

Sandé plays a solo spot at the piano "because this is where my journey started", and in the lovely Maybe sings that "we used to laugh until we cried". There's none of the darkness or real-life edge of an Amy Winehouse, but Sandé – approachable and controlled – is perhaps more likely to stick around.

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Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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