Tom Odell is a young man with momentum. The recipient of a Brit Award before he released his first album, part of Burberry’s London Fashion week set up and on the BBC Sound of 2013 list, it isn’t that surprising that he finds himself part of a major credit card sponsored shindig in one of the homes of the British establishment, Somerset House.
That some of this grand venue’s former residents include Tudor monarchs and the Inland Revenue tells you a little about the surroundings. Spit and sawdust it certainly isn’t, either in place or clientele. At one point, Odell tells the crowd, made up of a small number of genuine fans and a much larger pack of what might be the corporate hospitality set, that six months ago he was playing in the pub. Who knows where he drinks (he looks just old enough to be allowed), but it certainly won’t be anything like the scenic neoclassical courtyard that he finds himself in this evening.
It doesn’t help his show either. Despite looking impressive, Somerset House can actually kill off a gig pretty quickly. Its open courtyard can let the sound escape towards the Thames, and it is easy for those who are more bothered about enjoying a cider than listening to chatter into the open air.
This is especially a problem for Odell, a rakishly good looking, young singer-songwriter in the Elton John and Billy Joel mode. A piano man, he plonks keys and fidgets on his stool throughout the show – part nervous energy, part self belief. By rights, his songs, which drip with the angst of youth and generally involve trials of the heart, need to connect with the audience to be successful.
For most of tonight’s show, he struggles. This might be because he is poorly (he pulled out of supporting the Rolling Stones a few days earlier with a chest infection, which must have been particularly galling) but it is mostly because there isn’t the collective will here to see him succeed. When he opens the set with Grow Old With Me, a gloriously sentimental song about true love, he is met with general ambivalence. He shifts tack, warning the crowd he might struggle with the tricky notes of Beatles cover Get Back, surely an invitation for a good old summer sing along. He makes a good fist of it, but doesn’t manage to stir people from enjoying the British sunshine.
As is often the case with this kind of show, Odell cuts through when he plays the song that everyone knows. Another Love has been a hit single for him and played to near death by the BBC, and for the first time, the talking stops and he has nearly everyone’s attention. It is undoubtedly his finest work so far, catchy and melodramatic, with a hefty dose of young man’s introspection. The crowd join in, couples cuddle (assumingly missing the song’s message of heartbreak) and suddenly everything just about seems to fit.
It’s a fleeting moment though. He ends the hour long set with Hold Me, from the Fashion Week catwalk. It’s a touching love song, propped up by big, bold piano chords. Odell decides to go for broke – he’s standing now, pounding like the keys like a man possessed, kicking the stool away when it interrupts his movement and giving us a glimpse of the accomplished performer he clearly is.
This is backed up by the encore. Seemingly unfazed by the relative apathy, he finishes with a song he hasn’t even released. Cruel is a change of tack again, with big sounding blues piano. Most importantly, it looks like Odell and the band could just as well be back in the pub, jamming away oblivious of the rate of progress which has put them on stage at Somerset House tonight.
Tom Odell is an artist with talent, who can match it with a decent slice of showmanship, but sometimes that isn’t enough. As a platform for his talents, Somerset House should fit. But as a conduit to people connecting with his music, tonight it is as rigid as the institutions that once called it home.