Alexander O'Neal review – soul man sticks to the synth-funk hits

Jazz Café, London
The soul legend is a Manchester man now, and deploys a mid-Atlantic accent on a solid burst of ballads and party hits

‘We’re going to play songs from Hearsay and All True Man,” says Alexander O’Neal, big, forehead-mopping hanky at the ready. “But we’re not going to play songs from the Christmas album!” This self-deprecating sally is his standard concert opener: the 1988 Christmas record, My Gift to You, was a chart flop, but mentioning it underscores the success of the indelible Hearsay (1987) and All True Man (1991) albums. Hits like Criticize and Fake made him second only to Luther Vandross as the era’s dominant male soul voice, and O’Neal is a smart curator of his own catalogue.

His set contains only the hits, and is sequenced to begin and end with a display of sheeny Minneapolis synth-funk, with a mid-section comprised of cashmere vulnerability. The collective sigh at the start of If You Were Here Tonight is proof that, for his female fans, the man has very much still got it.

He’s an imposing 65-year-old who, having moved to Manchester in 2017, sporadically breaks into a mid-Atlantic accent; the singing voice is still resolutely American, and he hits the notes, initially rustily, dabbing his forehead as he goes. Apart from that, there’s no deviation into the unknown, just faithful recreations of songs that made him a major player in Jam and Lewis’s future-R&B landscape. Well, maybe not completely faithful. Backed by seven musicians, including a singer who punishingly out-belts him on Saturday Love, he turns up the dial on Criticize, creating a massive, party-style ensemble number that makes the original prissy by contrast. O’Neal could leave it to the band to do the heavy lifting, but he pulls his weight – in touch once more with the roistering spirit of 1987, perhaps.

At Jazz Café, London, 14 and 18 January. Then touring.


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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