Live Music + Gig Reviews

Paolo Nutini @ O2 Arena, London

12 January 2015

Paolo Nutini There’s no denying Scots soulman Paolo Nutini is now big name. The Paisley born singer has gone from playing second-tier to David Sneddon (think about it… it’ll come back to you) to multi-million selling arena figure, and has done so with an admirable degree of integrity, reinventing himself from rough-hewn folkie to smouldering soul man, gurning his way through three albums of earnest, sweaty manliness. He clearly prides himself on being the real deal – no gimmicks, no pop trash, just emotive honesty and his big soul voice. And being just a wee bit sexy, if the maternal screaming and clearly damp knickers displayed by much of tonight’s audience is anything to go by. Nutini, broadly, is a force for good in the world, and this – his biggest ever show – should be his crowning glory.

Alas, it never really feels like it. Delayed by nearly half an hour to allow revellers to work their way around the suspended Jubilee Line, opener Scream (Funk Up My Life) is slightly underwhelming – very little gets really funked up here. Nutini does try his best; he’s a fine singer with an expressive voice and his band is on point, with the tight feel of Muscle Shoals session men, rather than the flashy hired-hand musos usually brought in for this type of affair (there is, thankfully, no drum solo). He seems comfortable onstage too, and there’s a little of Bruce Springsteen about his tight-trousered appeal and belting vocals, though during Jenny Don’t Be Hasty as he straddles the mic stand it veers dangerously close to Tom Jones. The whole shebang clearly aims at the soul greats – Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett.

It never really translates though. Maybe Nutini will get better at this as he grows used to rooms of this size, but at present his performance rarely punches much past the front rows, let alone to those in the rafters. Swirly images behind him don’t really help – mostly they’re just abstract screens, though at their worst they make it look like he’s playing in front of the opening credits to an especially naff Bond film. The songs are mostly decent, but there’s a crucial, connecting energy that never really unites the room as it should – which is a shame, because you get the impression there could be some real power in this same show were it to play in a smaller venue. Tellingly a significant chunk of the audience don’t bother with the encore, leaving after Iron Sky, one of tonight’s highlights, which closes the main set.

Nutini clearly has arena sized ambition – proved by his reworking of 2009 hit Pencil Full Of Lead from vintage ska to U2/Coldplay-esq widescreen rock, and adding a full-on soul-boy interpretation of MGMT’s Time To Pretend into the encore, two of the more connecting moments here. But that ambition is never properly realised. Most effective tonight is a stripped back version of These Streets, the title track of his 2006 debut album, backed by projected home movies. It’s a rare glimpse of the man he is, rather than the one he’d like us to see. “I’m really overwhelmed” he admits afterwards. Which may be the problem.

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