Emeli Sandé – review

Hammersmith Apollo, London

There was some confusion organising this review of Emeli Sandé's run of gigs at London's Hammersmith Apollo. For a short time her label's PR department seemed endearingly unaware that the Scottish singer was playing three consecutive nights at the 5,000-plus capacity venue, not two. "Of course it's three nights," I wanted to reply, "it's Emeli Sandé."

There is always more Sandé on offer. Had there been a 2013 Brit award for ubiquity, she would have bagged it too. On her final night in London, night number nine of this UK tour, a year and a bit on from the release of her highly successful debut album, Our Version of Events, Sandé, though, retains all the vim of a debutant, despite two years of working this same material. Her voice has probably grown stronger with use. Too often, backing vocalists are there to cover the main performer's weaknesses. But Sandé's "bee vees" – LaDonna Harley-Peters and Aaron Sokell – meet her on equal footing. As the night draws to a climax, My Kind of Love features a particularly powerful set of vocal lifts that stay on the right side of excess.

Sandé's ascent has been rapid and thorough: the biggest-selling album of 2012, attendant Brits, Mobos and sundry magazine gongs. This jamminess spread all the way to the crusts at the Olympics, which she sliced both ways, performing in the heroic opening ceremony and the more low-brow mop-up at the end. So synonymous has Sandé become with big, blowsy public occasions, the snide tweeting began swiftly last week, wondering if Sandé would play at Margaret Thatcher's funeral.

Ask any artist: overexposure is a very nice problem to have. Tonight Sandé remains naturally warm and chatty, even when spouting the usual things – "thanks", "incredible", "amazing", "this song is dedicated to all of you" – that artists spout when the stages they are standing on are bigger than a squash court. Her hair is still a signature shock of blond shaved at the sides, but it has changed in small but significant ways. Where once it was more of a vertical Mohican, now it's a nicely curled "do": softer, more feminine, less electric.

There are a few more small but telling developments. Sandé's valedictory set tonight begins with Heaven, an early single. But its drum'n'bass shuffle has been swapped for a bigger, thwackier, soul-rock sound: her drummer is a man-mountain who makes himself heard all night. Breaking the Law, meanwhile, sounds more and more like U2 as it builds and crests.

Ever since Sandé climbed over the mixing desk (figuratively speaking) around 2011, trading her many backroom songwriting credits for the spotlight, she has presented a visual/auditory conundrum: how can a woman with a giant tattoo of Frida Kahlo down her arm sound so tame? Professional disser Noel Gallagher recently dismissed Sandé's music as being "for grannies", and there's truth in that. Several generations are present tonight, the way they are at Adele gigs. (Sandé, deliciously, tweeted a picture of an OAP with middle finger aloft in reply.)

Despite being 26, and having worked with some of the UK's biggest urban stars – Professor Green, Labrinth, Wiley, Chipmunk – it seems Sandé has never actually been young, if by young we mean edgy and streetwise. Sandé's stint at the piano for Clown (very catholic) and on the stool for Suitcase (so we can hear all the lyrics) point to deeply held, old-school musical values. It's a shame: for all the emotional intelligence of her lyrics – Daddy skilfully dissects the appeal of an abusive relationship – these songs seem to get less individual with airtime. By the closing Wonder, there is a weird salsa break and the confusing entreaty to dance. Where, you wonder, are the ballsy Nina Simone covers? This is London: Professor Green could have dropped by for his cameo, as he did when she played the Royal Albert Hall (although Labrinth did perform the previous night).

At some point Sandé decided to stop giving away her songs to other artists. But there's a stark contrast between her "new" song The Half of It – lyrically adroit, but a lumpen mid-tempo trudge tonight – and Rihanna's version, Half of Me, which appeared on her Unapologetic LP. Sandé wrote the song, she says, to tell the other half of the story of the TV footage of the 2011 riots (which is why, by the by, this Scot makes an unlikely Tory songbird). Rihanna's voice is, technically, thinner than Sandé's but its weariness somehow gives Rihanna's version the edge, transforming it into a riveting meditation on fame.

There is one more home-town gig in Sandé's itinerary – Aberdeen on Friday – before this neurosurgeon manqué (she trained to be a doctor) takes her ministrations across the water. Noel Gallagher probably got the consonant wrong because this is music with Grammys, not grannies, in its sights. And the key to understanding Sandé, perhaps, lies in her past as a medical student. Her songs are full of compassion. Though schmaltzy, her gig tonight has all the elements of a good bedside manner, writ large: succour, understanding and uplift.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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