Brit awards 2021: every performance reviewed, from Coldplay to Arlo Parks

From Coldplay’s opening spectacular on the Thames to Rag’n’Bone Man movingly performing with an NHS choir, we rate all of this year’s live performances

Coldplay

Coldplay are the Brits in band form: trying to be cool and youthful, way too corporate to get away with it, and yet almost always enjoyable. Chris and co are in that tricky part of a career recently faced by Katy Perry and others, where they’re not ready for a life on Radio 2, but their age means that any climb up the charts must now be done up a tricky, crumbling north face rather than the gentle inclines afforded the likes of younger, more relevant likes of Headie One, Dua Lipa and Joel Corry.

They could make it, though, with Higher Power, a really stellar new single produced by pop powerhouse Max Martin (who has worked with many shortlisted artists tonight such as Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and the Weeknd). It’s essentially the War on Drugs on actual drugs, with a peppy Dancing in the Dark-type snare keeping the energy high, and Chris using his traditional whoa-oh-ohs to encircle quasi-religious bromides presumably gleaned from an ayahuasca ceremony with Instagram fitness models in Tulum. He is in really fine voice right across the broad octave range needed for this track, and they perform it on a pontoon in the Thames with holograms instead of backing dancers – social distancing kings!

Dua Lipa

Referencing Geri … Dua Lipa.
Referencing Geri … Dua Lipa. Photograph: JMEnternational for the Brit awards/Getty Images

One of the key pleasures of the Brits is a medley, and Lipa delivers one straight off the back of Coldplay’s set. A take on Love Again set amid a depressing pandemic tableau on the London underground brightens into a blast of Physical on a tube train on stage itself. There’s Pretty Please’s high-tempo strut, Hallucinate’s club energy, and then into Don’t Start Now and Future Nostalgia – and all of it in a Geri-referencing pleated union jack miniskirt, her second chaotic look of the night. The consummate British pop star – it takes such confidence, glamour, fitness and technical mastery to deliver such a seamless and highly choreographed spectacle.

Olivia Rodrigo

Take it away … Olivia Rodrigo performs Drivers License.
Take it away … Olivia Rodrigo performs Drivers License. Photograph: Ian West/PA

“In the words of Tiger Woods: Drivers License, take it away.” Jack Whitehall amusingly introduces this nice coup for the Brits, the debut UK performance from a woman who has gone from being completely unknown to anyone outside the High School Musical fandom to having the biggest song in the world this year, Drivers License. While in the Disney show she dramatises fiction, this breakup ballad is drawn from her real life, and yet for me there’s still something actorly about her delivery on the studio version that I find a bit distancing: the bruised vocal fry, the pat rebellion of the F-word. On the other hand, doesn’t the heartbreak she sings about sometimes feel as torrid as a stage tragedy or film romance?

So the stage is perhaps the most natural place for her and, having ditched her earlier highlighter-coloured dress, she’s like a flicker of flame in red and gives her ballad real presence. Backed by harp and piano, she would perhaps benefit from a bit more orchestral oomph and support for that middle eight where her voice sounds a little hard and stark – but this is just fine tuning for a live show that will no doubt grow to become something really dramatic.

Arlo Parks

Breaking through … Arlo Parks.
Breaking through … Arlo Parks. Photograph: John Marshall/PA

Fresh from the night’s first award, it’s breakthrough artist winner Arlo Parks. A subterranean meeting by the lizard people who run the British media decreed that every mention of her must be followed with the words “the voice of her generation” – a rather paternalistic boomer framing that underplays both how varied her generation is, and the universal appeal of her music. Her debut album Collapsed in Sunbeams is stacked with yearning melodies and the emotional strife is stuff we all go through. But can she scale up the intimate feel to a rather empty O2 Arena?

Taking the lockdown houseplant craze to a psychedelic extreme by fringing her band with dozens of sunflowers, and wearing her second excellent suit of the night, she performs Hope, and shows that her voice works just as well beaming to the back of the bleachers as it does cupping your ear. She adds in a spoken middle eight referring to the pandemic’s difficulties, and how we’ve learned to talk over Zoom and continue to allow relationships to blossom – much like those flowers. A brass band, Kinetika Bloco, then arrives to bring the song into full bloom. One of the night’s best performances.

Elton John and Years & Years

Elton John and Olly Alexander.
Elton John and Olly Alexander. Photograph: John Marshall/AFP/Getty Images

One of the many, many good things about Elton John is how much of a fiend for contemporary pop he is. Having already championed Rising Star nominee Rina Sawayama, he now does a take on Pet Shop Boys’ It’s a Sin with Years & Years (whose frontman Olly Alexander starred in the TV drama of the same name). Olly performs lying on Elton’s piano, in a crop top for an acoustic piano version, but there’s no way this wasn’t going to go full disco: the electropop of the original kicks in and Elton takes over lead vocals as Olly negotiates his way through a literal and metaphorical maze. A more thoughtful arrangement might have given Elton more room for audible piano-bashing, but it’s still a winning combination, especially as Olly lasciviously signposts all sorts of sin with his gyrating hips. You can download the track now to benefit the Elton John Aids Foundation.

The Weeknd

Victory lap … the Weeknd.
Victory lap … the Weeknd. Photograph: Richard Young/Rex/Shutterstock

There’s usually some guilty schadenfreude in seeing stars have their dreams of award glory crushed – all those pursed lips after their names aren’t read out provide a particular glee, showing A-listers to be just as prone to the same petty insecurities as all of us. But the Grammys’ snub of the Weeknd this year was just bafflingly wrong. Despite having the biggest album and single of 2020, which were also stone-cold pop classics, he didn’t even get nominated. The pungent fishiness of the whole thing has meant the Grammys have since done away with the secret committees that decide the nominations, which led to this wonderfully dramatic riposte from the Weeknd: “The Grammys’ recent admission of corruption will hopefully be a positive move for the future of this plagued award.”

He gets to have a victory lap at the Brit awards instead, performing Save Your Tears via video in a thoroughly waterproof outfit – a J Hus fisherman reference, we hope – alongside Daniel Lopatin, AKA Oneohtrix Point Never, continuing his unlikely path from super-underground electronic producer to impresario of highly theatrical Weeknd performances (he was also musical director of the Super Bowl half-time show). This is a much more ambitious spectacle than the usual phoned-in video link, with the Weeknd leaving a concrete performance box to step into a rainy apocalypse, presumably full of precipitation formed from the tears of his spurned lovers. His vocal, as ever, is supremely confident, studio quality but still live-feeling. World class.

Griff

Griff, winner of the rising star award.
Griff, winner of the rising star award. Photograph: JMEnternational for the Brit awards/Getty Images

It’s perhaps a measure of the work still to be done around race and equality that pop stars of east Asian heritage, either from the region itself or the UK, almost never find success here; the massively successful BTS are often discussed by the British media in terms usually reserved for British Museum wall text, even though their music is about as straightforwardly appealing as pop gets.

Hearteningly, though, this year’s rising star award shortlist featured two east Asian singers, Japanese-British singer Rina Sawayama, and the winner Griff, who is of Chinese and Jamaican parentage. Sawayama’s mashup of nu-metal, glossy pop and influences from deconstructed club music is progressive and thrilling; Griff is a safer, decidedly major label prospect who, so far, has been delivering blandly capable songwriting rather than true pop magic. She gives everything to Black Hole in a Weeknd-style apocalyptic wilderness, and her keening, wronged voice in the chorus is full of character. But it’s hard to escape the fact that this is a bit of a “third single from Rita Ora’s comeback album” level song.

Headie One, AJ Tracey and Young T & Bugsey

A rare smile … Headie One.
A rare smile … Headie One. Photograph: JMEnternational for the Brit awards/Getty Images

With an outfit referencing his Ghanaian heritage and a stage set fringed with news headlines, all of it designed by Louis Vuitton’s artistic director Virgil Abloh, Headie continues the recent tradition of rap artists making high-profile anti-authoritarian statements at the Brit awards – witness Dave calling Boris Johnson a “real racist”, or Stormzy asking: “where’s the money for Grenfell?” News reporter-style voices are heard criticising drill rap, perhaps a nod to Skepta, who used similar voices in a track following the criticised Kanye West performance of All Day at the 2015 Brits, that had middle England shifting uncomfortably on their sofas.

AJ Tracey appears in a light-up corridor and delivers his verse of Ain’t It Different on point, and the two then trade freestyled bars in lieu of an absent Stormzy for verse three. “The government is saying eat out to help out but won’t help out Rashford when he’s feeding the youths” – another bit of Boris bashing and Rashford promotion to file alongside AJ’s similar verse in his track with Digga D, Bringing It Back – and “two black Brits stand here at the Brits but still we ain’t seen as British”. It’s not quite as clear and emphatic as those aforementioned examples, but nevertheless they’re still using the Brits stage as a space to question racism and government decisions during the pandemic – unimaginably different, and better, than the purely lairy energy of the Brits in previous decades.

Then it’s a segue into brighter, wavier fare with Young T & Bugsey for Don’t Rush, with Headie even cracking one of his rare, slightly enigmatic smiles. A great showcase of all sides of his artistry.

Rag’n’Bone Man & Pink, with the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Choir

Rag’n’Bone Man and Pink perform with the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust Choir.
Powerful … Rag’n’Bone Man and Pink perform with the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust Choir. Photograph: JMEnternational for the Brit awards/Getty Images

I first heard Anywhere Away From Here when Rag’n’Bone Man did a bare-bones acoustic performance prior to release, and it was really powerful: that richly soulful voice and honest lyricism doesn’t need anything more than a piano or guitar. But with the many, many cooks that surround a major label release, bags of cheese and sugar were emptied into the production on the studio version, then toasted with vocal fry from Pink, who hit the song’s emotional beats with all the enthusiasm of a boxercise instructor having to teach in the rain thanks to the pandemic.

But set amid the context of the hopefully waning pandemic, amid an O2 Arena full of frontline heroes, and backed by the estimable key workers of the Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Choir, the song wrenches back its power – the extra choral heft gives it the grandeur it lacks in the recorded version, Rag’n’Bone Man’s voice is reliably stirring, and the shots panning across the singing NHS staff are truly moving. It is also now available to download, to benefit NHS charities.

A fitting climax to a show that repeatedly acknowledged the extraordinary work done by key workers during the pandemic – a task that the Brit awards, hosting pop at its most universal and shamelessly emotional, was so well placed to deliver on.

Contributor

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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