Live Music + Gig Reviews

Alexandra Burke @ Union Chapel, London

17 November 2009

It’s the second night of Mencap’s Little Noise Sessions and we’re back at the glorious Union Chapel, an unlikely setting for what is undoubtedly the “pop” night of this year’s series.

Curator Jo Whiley has scored a big coup for this one. As the nation is again gripped by The X-Factor frenzy, reigning champion Alexandra Burke is on hand for what she says is the first gig where she’s played “lots of songs” since her wedding singer days.

Support comes in the form of VV Brown, who whips through some of the highlights of her album in a workwomanlike way having toured it non-stop this year, and from those cute Danish upstarts Alphabeat. As an ice cool Stine and her puppy dog co-vocalist Anders coo their way through the familiar Boyfriend, The Spell and, of course, Fascination, the 650 people present start to settle in ahead of the big event to come.

In a week in which London has played host to single-monikered divas Beyonc and Rihanna, Alexandra Burke still needs her surname. She’s clearly not in their league, and that’s as it should be. As with Leona Lewis and JLS, those other current successes borne of The X-Factor, a lot of adulation and expectation has been placed upon her – but on the basis of meagre material. The talent show has proven that it can send an act straight to the higher reaches of the charts, but hasn’t yet had the opportunity to demonstrate for how long it can keep them flying.

After the acoustic guitar backing of VV Brown’s set, and the whole band present for Alphabeat, there’s no hiding the fact that Alexandra’s going to do this with a backing track. She appears on stage with an entourage of just two backing singers and two dancers. Dangerous, the upbeat b-side to recent number one hit Bad Boys, kicks things off, showcasing a voice in good form.

The dancers retreat for her to sing They Don’t Know, one of the better ballads from her only recently released (and much delayed) album. And then her backing vocalists disappear, leaving her to command the stage for an emotional performance of The Silence. It leaves her tearful as she sees some of her fans singing the words back to her.

She’s generally very emotional; with a lot of family present, this is a big night for her, and she comes across as charming but nervous. As she paces the stage, almost turning into a stand-up comic at one point as she asks where everyone’s from, her mum shouts at her to stop “waffling on”. Endearingly she mishears and nonsensically responds, “yes, I’m muffling on”. She comes across as sweet and good-natured, and as someone genuinely doing what she has always dreamed of. And which singer wouldn’t dream of headlining the Union Chapel?

From here on though, the set loses its way. As much as it’s good to not feel as though an act is simply hawking their album at you, the next four songs are all covers, and the only one of them that appears on the album is her winner’s song, Hallelujah. An occasionally faulty sound system pumps out the backing for Oleta Adams‘s Get Here, The Jackson 5‘s I’ll Be There and Beyonc’s Listen. As it happens, Hallelujah turns out to be the set’s highlight as she gets an actual real live musician to strum his guitar along with her, but the overall effect is that it’s turned into a superior karaoke session.

We know she’s a good singer. We’ve seen her on The X-Factor; she won it. This doesn’t need to be proven. Tonight she would have done better to show off more of her original material. As she closes with Bad Boys, and her bad boy dancers come back on, it feels like a missed opportunity to demonstrate more than just her voice.

These sessions continue to get a superb roll call of stars and stars-in-the-making who all perform in aid of Mencap for no fee. As with many of the others appearing this year, at this moment Alexandra has the power to focus some attention on the charity’s efforts. But singing along to old songs surely isn’t what she has in mind for her career in the long term. She can, and will need to, do better.

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Alexandra Burke @ Union Chapel, London