Jake Bugg – review

Koko, London

The story goes that 18-year-old Jake Bugg – born Jacob Kennedy – picked up an acoustic guitar a few years ago and found himself writing songs in the urban-troubadour mould of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, with a touch of skiffle madness to leaven the folk-pop tales of Nottingham housing estates. Instead of heeding a friend's advice to audition for Britain's Got Talent, he plugged away at small gigs until he caught the attention of a label. Before you could say "shades of Lonnie Donegan", he was No 1 in the album chart, and being touted as the antidote to manufactured pop.

The back-story is probably true enough, but there is also the stamp of marketing intervention: the flop-top haircut is too L'Uomo Vogue and the sepia album photography too artful to be self-generated. Moreover, most of his tunes are co-writes with professionals such as Iain Archer. What's not in doubt is his talent. For 50 minutes, Bugg transfixes a horribly humid Koko, and if he's not quite Dylan, nor is he some pretty mannequin.

His entrance music is a scratchy recording of Robert Johnson singing Cross Road Blues – not to assert his "authenticity", you suspect, but to stake his claim to a place in the folk-blues lineage. And he could end up deserving it. His prematurely rusted voice conjures up vinyl records and seen-it-all wisdom, and his guitar-playing veers from country finger-picking to beatnik strummery, but the songs nail the feeling of being young in 2012. Or at least a version of it: his is one in which teenage miscreants "skin up a fat one, hide from the feds", but feel overwhelming tenderness toward loved ones – "Don't beat yourself up/ Your best is good enough," counsels Note to Self, a garage-rock livener that pops up halfway through.

Bugg doesn't speak and barely moves – the backing bassist and drummer show the only signs of life – but is still compelling. Opening with three of his most skiffle-indebted songs is a canny move; the young audience find that the lack of a four-to-the-floor beat is no impediment to dancing, and the gig is on its way. Bugg is most Dylanesque on the bluesy, gluey Ballad of Mr Jones, which bleakly imagines a murder trial ("found the perpetrators in a drunken haze"), but the rawness of a solo acoustic Someone Told Me is the most striking moment. Lightning Bolt is the jolting rockabilly closer, and off he slinks – retro, yet absolutely modern.

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Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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