Plan B – review

Roundhouse, London

You do feel slightly sorry for all the mid-level acts gigging in London in September. In a new annual tradition, for 30 days all the available oxygen gets sucked up by the iTunes festival. Held at the architecturally satisfying Roundhouse venue in Camden in north London, filmed live and managed with the ease and multi-platform streaming capacity of a company that monopolises the delivery of pop music to its own devices via its own patented systems, the iTunes festival is free to competition winners. The line-up might not be particularly imaginative but few stars of 2012 can resist the iTunes call.

It is ever so now. Are you already inescapable this year? Take the stage, Emeli Sandé, One Direction and Ed Sheeran. Are you an established American artist with a new album to promote? Step this way, Alicia Keys, Pink and Norah Jones. Are you Calvin Harris, the most successful UK dance-pop producer de nos jours? You're only the support act for the even more successful David Guetta. The ectomorphic nightlife of fashionable Dalston is probably unaffected, but it would be fascinating to know what the ticket sales are like elsewhere.

Plan B played iTunes two years ago, when his breakthrough album, The Defamation of Strickland Banks, was taking off. He remembers it with gruff fondness when he finally speaks towards the end of tonight's show. Heralded by a short human beatbox set by Faith SFX, his veteran hype man, Ben Drew begins 2012's performance with Prayin', a retro soul song from Strickland that feels positively ancient, despite a vintage of only two years. Mindful of the passage of time, Drew's live band put the song through a few new permutations. It works rather well as ska, but there's a rockist dead end that sits ill with the sour sweetness of a troubled convict's lament.

So much has happened to Drew since Strickland prayed, much of it this year. Drew's topical debut feature film, Ill Manors, came out in June, to much fanfare. It was followed in July by the album, less a soundtrack than a special aural feature in which the substance of the film accrued more depth. The album went to No 1 the weekend the Olympics opened, an irony you imagine Drew must have savoured, given the clash between Locog's vision of east London and his own, which happened to occupy the same patch of earth.

Three songs in tonight, Ill Manors arrives, mob-handed. Producer Labrinth leaps on stage to sing the hook, while support act Delilah stalks around in platform wedges to coo the "aahs" on Playing With Fire . The wall of pyrotechnics that shoots up is, perhaps, a tad literal, but Plan B doesn't do things by half measures. Huge flames erupt time and again, probably costing the front rows their eyebrows.

Even better is Drug Dealer, whose buoyant, rubbery propulsion is matched thrill for thrill by Drew's high-speed delivery of his most lyrical flow. The ballad about Chris, a crack baby turned hardnut supplier, features the dulcet reggae intercessions of Takura Tendayi, a Zimbabwean vocalist. He's even better live than on record.

Plan B's would be a bravura performance but for the minor distractions. Drew isn't one of pop's most natural frontmen. He's more of an Everyman whose superpower is combustible intensity, and tonight he's engaged in a battle to hear himself. There's nothing wrong with songs such as Welcome to Hell or the swinging Writing's on the Wall, but for all the professionalism you can't help but notice Drew's frustration.

He gets more fired up as he goes along. Lost My Way is magnificent, a speeded up urban blues that locates precisely the blackened, beating heart of Ill Manors. In an impassioned rap, Drew lays into the moral vacuum that surrounds his protagonists, his audience and himself. Then he pogos into his guitarist. "Where's the moshpit?" he yells at the crowd during Pieces, one of his collaborations with Chase and Status in which drum'n'bass collides aggressively with testosterone-drenched guitar riffs. We're not a million miles from "brostep", a recent college frat boy variant of dubstep. The encore features uncomfortable urban takeovers of Stand by Me and Seal's Kiss From a Rose alongside a furious version of the film's title track lit by burning purple riot flares.

Just the other night, Drew attended the premiere of the film version of The Sweeney, in which he co-stars prominently alongside Ray Winstone. The 28-year-old from Forest Gate has also fitted in a tour of UK forests and mentoring work as part of Radio 1's Hackney Weekend outreach programme, some of which was filmed for a BBC3 documentary. He recently told a tabloid that he is ready for a break. "I was offered everything I ever wanted at the exactly the same time," he's quoted as saying. "I thought I'd be able to do it all to a high standard and have a personal life and, obviously, that wasn't realistic."

Tonight's last song, as ever, is a terrific rampage through Stay Too Long, the pivotal tune from Strickland Banks, in which the titular star fails to realise when it's time to leave. Drew hasn't outstayed his welcome but you hope he gets his decompression period soon. It will be fascinating to see what the rapper-soul man-actor-director, and the unlikely conscience of British pop, does when he comes back.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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