Brits 2020: all the performances reviewed

From Dave’s urgent freestyle to Lizzo’s effervescent party medley, Billie Eilish’s Bond high-note to Stormzy’s rain-drenched celebration, here are all the Brit award 2020 live acts


The Brits’ sole British female nominee in the mixed categories – for shame! – opens the show in some Timbalands and pink workwear, like she’s off to do a bit of light grouting on the way to the afters. Like Dua Lipa a couple of years back, she papers over some slightly ordinary vocals in Don’t Call Me Up with a ridiculous amount of dancers, and chooses to mime the chorus – perhaps wise given she doesn’t consistently nail the top notes in the verses. She shows off some admirable core strength as she is held aloft for the climax, but I can’t help but feel this tune is a 7/10 jam that you happily nod along to at 11pm in the club while teenage boys circle nervously around girls who actively disdain them, but you wouldn’t exactly go wild to it at peak time.

Off to do a bit of light grouting … Mabel.
Off to do a bit of light grouting … Mabel. Photograph: JM Enternational/Rex/Shutterstock

Lewis Capaldi

Someone You Loved is a really powerful piece of writing, for its total melodic logic, a top line modulating through relatively stoic resolve before deciding, nope, I’m really sad about this breakup actually. This is a relatively muted performance of his power ballad, lacking the full snot-encrusted, ice-cream quaffing, ugly-crying holler that he often gives it. Perhaps that’s a result of him have lessons to bolster his vocal strength – as he told our Alexis last year, he was basically making up singing as he went along, just going hell for leather on everything, and shredding his vocals chords as he did so.

Incidentally, this is the first evidence of the Brits’ souped-up live offering this year, where they have three different stages dotted around the O2, achieved by reducing the number of industry bods at tables by 50%. Somewhere, Darren in Universal’s marketing department is fuming.

Harry Styles

Is it David Bowie or Miss Haversham? … Harry Styles.
Is it David Bowie or Miss Haversham? … Harry Styles. Photograph: JM Enternational/Rex/Shutterstock

This is the one where he admits to “wandering hands” and generally having a rum old time of it during a breakup, over a ruminative piano ballad – in fact, two pianos, for double sadness points. Come on, Capaldi just did exactly this vibe five minutes ago! I personally would have preferred a slick-heeled slide through Adore You or Lights Up, where he bisexually chats up a series of mixed-gender supermodel backing dancers.

But Styles, looking like a cross between David Bowie and Miss Havisham, is the first performer to bring some really A-grade vocals to the Brits. There is such a terrific certainly to how hurt he is, and how badly he messed up: the really chilling clarity of having truly lost someone, and it probably being at least partly your fault. The backing vocals are exquisitely mixed, the piano playing perfect, and the “dystopian Sandals resort water feature” is the kind of effect this high production value Brits is rightly spending the money on. Bravo to all!


Five times as loud as anything else … Lizzo.
Five times as loud as anything else … Lizzo. Photograph: David Fisher/Rex/Shutterstock

Medley! The Brits lives for a medley. Lizzo emerges at the centre of big lengths of chiffon like a queenly spider, but is quickly down among some twerking dancers. Her ability to flip around a high ponytail while not throwing off her mic skills is quite astonishing, even if it does get her slightly out of breath (noted for my next HIIT class, though I’m not sure it works for bald guys). Some random bloke in the crowd even gets to get on the mic as she goes down into the crowd, dispensing ladles of her infectious charisma to all and sundry. Truth Hurts segues into Good as Hell into Juice into a snatch of Cuz I Love You. Buttocks vibrate at high amplitude. “Thank you,” she mouths to the crowd. “BITCH!”


Playing piano against blocks of black is a performance of Black, Dave’s ode to needing to work twice as hard, as a black person, to get half as far in life. If Harry Styles had two pianos, Dave one-ups him with a single piano with two keyboards. He plays it himself in the opening half of the endlessly unspooling freestyle, but is joined by a second pianist to allow him to focus on the mic ratchet up the vocal intensity; pain and speed gradually reaching a climax of sheer anger at institutional and historic racism.

And what a climax. Dave gets off his piano stool to deliver a newly written final freestyle verse that ranks alongside – no, outpaces – the similarly electric and political statement from Stormzy when he shouted “where’s the money for Grenfell?” in 2018. “The truth is our prime minister is a real racist” gets aired in the opening lines. He pays tribute to Jack Merritt, a victim of the London Bridge terror attack, but argues “tougher sentences: that’s just papering cracks”; spits fire about the treatment of Meghan Markle, calls out the government regarding Grenfell; and calls for “reparations for the time our people spent on plantations”. This is what the Brits stage is made for: forthright political statements that can hopefully move the dial in millions of living rooms nationwide.

Billie Eilish

Utterly riveting … Billie Eilish performing No Time to Die at the Brit awards.
Utterly riveting … Billie Eilish performing No Time to Die at the Brit awards. Photograph: JM Enternational/Rex/Shutterstock

This is the live debut for No Time to Die, Billie Eilish’s theme for the James Bond film of the same name – a real coup for the Brits. Her brother Finneas plays brooding piano – quite the musical theme of this year’s ceremony – and Johnny Marr plays substantial, malevolent guitar licks, including an exceptionally Bond-style imperfect cadence at the end. Hans Zimmer, Bond score composer, conducts the orchestra. But despite the pedigree surrounding her, Eilish is utterly riveting. Her vocal control, swooping between breathy depth, lung-busting mid-range notes and expertly swooping top range is immaculate, but then a lot of blue-chip singers can do that. Her particular genius is to climb right inside your head with every doleful creak and crack in her voice. Bond, a man nursing a busted stiff upper lip, has his perfect musical foil.


What a moment … Celeste on stage at the Brit Awards 2020.
What a moment … Celeste on stage at the Brit Awards 2020. Photograph: Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP

Celeste is the winner of the rising star award, formerly the critics’ choice award, given to those anointed for future greatness by the industry. A certain kind of female vocal, edges cracking and flaking like old paint, has been used to evoke a dilapidated heart ever since Billie Holiday slowed down the blues into indigo decades ago. It was this audible damage that made Amy Winehouse such a sensation, and now Celeste, who sings her spellbinding ballad Strange, a song about the disbelief at someone you loved reverting back to just another human going about their business. Having seen her live last year, up close her voice is truly devastating and it does feel like it belongs in a room where smoke is gathering around the table lamps, but nevertheless she projects it right to the back of the arena here. What a moment for her, and a really excellent decision by the Brits to push forward the next generation of British performers by giving them access to the country’s biggest stage.


Revel in the might … Stormzy’s finale at the Brit awards.
Revel in the might … Stormzy’s finale at the Brit awards. Photograph: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

Sound the medley klaxon! Stormzy opens with a – you guessed it – piano ballad, admittedly with a strong dose of gospel fervour. Don’t Forget to Breathe’s appeal will be proportional to how much you like his naive singing style, but just the very sight of seeing him perform with a mic stand is a mark of how far he’s come: now a pop star with real range who no longer just spits into a mic in his fist.

He hops back to pure grime for Wiley Flow, surrounded by a squad goading on a bit of scaffolding slightly reminiscent of a bit of his Glastonbury staging. No sign of Wiley himself though, so their beef remains unburied. Then it’s a blast of J Hus’s Fortune Teller – a nice nod to his fellow UK rap star – before segueing into his No 1 track Own It, with Burna Boy on the hook, who gets to do some of his own joyous Afro-pop hit Anybody.

The closing Rainfall, which takes him back round to the gospel of the opening with its Mary Mary sample, sees him surrounded by hundreds of people of colour euphorically jumping and undulating in time, rounding off a celebration of creativity from both sides of the black Atlantic. It partners perfectly with Dave’s necessarily angry performance earlier in the evening: once the anger has been purged and the terms been written, perhaps black Britain can look to the future, and revel in the might of its artistry.

Rod Stewart

Closing the show … Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood perform on stage at the Brit Awards 2020.
Closing the show … Rod Stewart and Ronnie Wood perform on stage at the Brit Awards 2020. Photograph: Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP

Closing the show is Rod Stewart, looking like a toreador who just can’t resist the finest silk. “I’m going to do this one for your mum, Hillary” – a reference to a joke Whitehall had made earlier in the evening, that his mother was off giving Rod some mild sexual harassment.

Well, Rod’s got the Brits 2020 memo, and it’s going to be a sad, sweeping ballad, I Don’t Want to Talk About It. I guess if you’ve hired an orchestra for the night you might as well get the most out of them, and Rod’s in pleasingly husky form. “Any good?” he asks the crowd to whooping affirmation. “This show might be 40 years old but the Faces are 50 years old ... let me bring up Ronnie Wood and Kenney Jones. Here is is, my old mucker!”

The reunited Faces do Stay With Me, with heavily overdriven blues-rock riffing from Wood. Quick, bring your dad down from brushing his teeth, he’ll like this one! The orchestra works rather well here, swinging rather boozily around Stewart’s lusty belting.

Overall I could have done with some more pop bangers – Mabel’s was a little bit of a damp squib to open the show, though Lizzo’s medley was an injection of pure energy. Yet there was some real quality to the endless balladeering – and Dave’s stern excoriation of British racism was electrifying.


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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