Katie Melua / James Blunt - The Lowry, Manchester - 7.3.04

It wouldn't take a genius to notice that the music industry is on it's knees waiting for the next cash injection and wondering where exactly it's gone wrong. It's artists like Katie Melua that are showing the way forward. Like the Darkness, Melua was universally ignored by the industry who in it's infinite wisdom decided that these artists would just not sell and low and behold in the space of a few short months Melua has grown from a virtual unknown to having her debut album "Call Off The Search" climb to the top spot 4 months after it was released. What's even more unusual is that it was actually Eurovision compere Terry Wogan who noticed the quality of Mike Batt's songwriting and played tracks daily on his Radio 2 Breakfast show months before the rest of the world cottoned on. This is definitely the closest thing to crazy.

With Paddy Casey joining the tour early next week as the special guest it's up to newcomer James Blunt to warm things up gently for the main act. Recently signed to Elektra Records Blunt looks set to be one of the breakthrough artists of the SXSW festival later this month with a collection of instant modern classics which offers the promise we first saw with a James Walsh from Starsailor, yet with songs so well written they wipe the floor with anything Coldplay, Starsailor, David Gray and any of their ilk could ever come up with. "High, "So Long Jimmy", "Tears In The Rain" and "You're Beautiful" will be the soundtrack to our lives in the very near future and rather than conform to the staid personality of your archetypal singer songwriter, Blunt has the sort of deadpan sense of humour displayed by comedy toff Jimmy Carr. Blunt's ascendance is a dead cert and this time next year it isn't that far removed from reality to suggest that a number 1 album, Brit Award and countless accolade's will be his for the taking.

When Mike Batt walks on stage to introduce Melua it was inevitable some wise guy would shout out the Wombles, but it's easy to forget that he's also worked with artists such as Art Garfunkel and Elkie Brookes. It's hard though to discount the fact that the pounds signs and kerching's are running through his head throughout tonight's performance. Katie Melua is a marketing mans wet dream and it's hard to explain why any rational A&R would have turned her down in the first place. A voice of an absolute angel mixed with a look that is dark and sensual with a audience which tonight spans from the age of 12 through to 70. Despite her tender years Melua performance is confident and assured as the opening song "Faraway Voice" testifies. Written about her musical hero Eva Cassidy this gentle song is performed acoustically and stripped of any backing shows Melua for the true artist she is. The next single, and title track of the album, "Call Off The Search" is a clear gem but when it's played just before "Blame It On The Moon" you can't help but feel they've chosen the wrong song. The latter, such an effortless cool pop song and rich in emotion it's hard not to drift away on the melody and with Katie ditching the guitar for a diva like pose on the stage there are signs that Katie could establish herself out of the singer songwriter scene and become a true star of the modern age.

New song "Spiders Web" is introduced a political song, but don't let that scare you she reassures us. "The line between wrong and right is width of a thread. The keys on the piano are black and white, but they sound like a million lovers in your mind", a simplistic sentiment, but sat on the melody it the ideology shines through. More than anything is shows that the potential shown on "Call Off The Search" isn't short-lived and there's even better to come. Another new song "Joan Of Arc And Jack The Lad" is Melua's most overtly pop song to date and while it may annoy the purists who believe that pop is a four letter word it may certainly open up here audience to an even wider spectrum than it is already

With Jamie Cullum on tour the chances of a duet between the two live on stage are impossible, but on her solo version of the Cure's "Love Cats" there's a sense of relief that Cullum is actually absent as the subtle restrained backing vocals from Mike Batt are much more fitting than Cullum's in your face desperate attempts to steal the show at the Brit Awards last month. A cover of "Lilac Wine" is as spine tingling as Jeff Buckley's take on the song, while in a nod to her roots she covers a song called "Home" by her fantastically named friend Polly Scattergood.

Her breakthrough song "Closest Thing To Crazy" takes us up to the encore, but unlike the recorded version which shines, tonight it seems a little flat and somewhat of an anti-climax following the high that came earlier. An extended jam through "I Put A Spell On You" follows with the full band departing to allow Melua to cover Eva Cassidy's "The Anniversary Song" as the closing number - a nod to her past influences and a symbolic handing of the baton over to the future.

Alex McCann
Photo's by Karen McBride - www.karenmcbride.com

Read the Designer Magazine interview with Katie Melua by clicking here

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