Jake Bugg review – minimum showmanship, maximum talent

Alexandra Palace, London
The 20-year-old Nottingham singer-songwriter barely acknowledged the crowd, but so hypnotic were his tumbling rhythms and wrong-side-of-the-tracks observations that it didn’t matter

Jake Bugg’s ascent to fame may have been precipitous, but his idea of showmanship remains remarkably minimalist. At this most prestigious gig of his career to date, he could only have made fewer concessions to his audience had he chosen to lock the venue doors and not let them in.

A precocious talent, the Nottingham singer-songwriter released two albums before he was out of his teens. His self-titled debut topped the UK charts on its way to going double platinum, while last year’s Rick Rubin-produced followup, Shangri-La, made impressive inroads in the US. None of that appears to matter a tinker’s cuss to the callow, black-clad 20-year-old with a bowl cut who strolls on stage with the insouciant cool of a young Lennon, plugs in, and fires through 20 songs in a mere 75 minutes. His backing band is utterly unobtrusive; his rare between-song comments are largely inaudible asides.

You need quite some talent to get away with this shtick, and luckily Bugg has it in spades. His observational eye is evident in the night’s opening double whammy of Messed Up Kids and Seen It All, two vignettes of juvenile delinquency from his youth spent on the wrong side of the tracks on a Midlands council estate.

How far he has come in how short a time is shown by the mellow country-blues stylings of Me and You, a song that bemoans the paparazzi attentions he suffered during a brief dalliance with Cara Delevingne. Even more powerful are the tumbling rhythms and stuttering cadences of There’s a Beast and We All Feed It, a nasal, barbed laceration of hypocrites that is as irresistibly dexterous as Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues.

The attention wanders during a mid-set acoustic section, but the lewd rockabilly throb of Kingpin, a paean to street drug dealers, snaps it back into focus. As Bugg’s star rises, he will, like Arctic Monkeys, inevitably leave such subject matter behind, but as he drawls in Slumville Sunrise, he won’t miss them: “This place is just not for me/ I said it a thousand times.”

His heartbreak ballad Broken is received in reverent silence, and the 21st-century skiffle of his closing signature tune, Lightning Bolt, evokes a football-crowd roar. There is no encore. When it comes to his adoring followers, Jake Bugg is a youthful master of knowing how to treat ’em mean and keep ’em keen.

• At Union Chapel, London, on 23 October. Box office: 020-7226 1686.

• This article was amended on 23 October 2014. An earlier version misnamed the song Slumville Sunrise as Slumville Surprise.

Contributor

Ian Gittins

The GuardianTramp

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