Rebecca Ferguson - Manchester Bridgewater Hall
“People call us renegades / 'Cause we like living crazy.” It’s not exactly going to nudge the earth off its axis but as her wholly unpredictable choice of cover version comes to a close, the response of Rebecca Ferguson’s new - post-X Factor - audience suggests they are up for the unexpected. And why not? Here, a year after she ran nice-but-dull Matt Cardle a close second in 2010’s series, Ferguson makes good on the promise of debut album Heaven and offers inarguable confirmation that, should we have forgotten, live performance is her stock-in-trade. If the smoky soul inflection of her record carried itself with an authority that convinced doubters and stepped sideways around the obvious manhole of overly smooth, ersatz grooves, see her with a live band behind her and start to think she might be seriously onto something.
Kings of Leon’s ‘Knocked Up’ is a smart statement of intent: a two fingers to convention and decorum, young love’s defiance against overwhelming odds. Ferguson, a young mother of two, had her first child at just 18. Still only 25, she looks older, carries herself with the steely regard of a fighter who never gave up on the dream. Her immersion and authority in performance continues to grow. It’s in between songs where her youth and inexperience almost give her away; there are nerves and giggles as she chats to the crowd and though a smartly programmed set does much to gradually fire the evening, sharp anecdotes and glib asides may well be a few years off.
Still, novelty aside, this a convincing performance. Audience in pocket from off, she delivers a repertoire that already has a mostly timeless quality. The band is session-hot but, you know, not too slick. And their leader shimmies in a long white dress and fills this huge but accommodating hall with a voice whose shades of young Bassey do much to set her aside from the young wailers cluttering the charts. She and the band kick up a storm on the likes of ‘Fairytale’ but their take on vintage soul actually compels less than the quieter moments. Her beautifully under-dramatised interpretation of Sam Cooke's 'A Change is Gonna Come' is mature and well judged. But album highlight ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ is tonight’s high spot, indication that Ferguson may yet learn to tell a story in song like the names who inspired her.
Here’s hoping she doesn’t stray from the path. Leave the over-emoting to the likes of Leona Lewis (Ferguson demonstrates winning smarts by reining it in, holding back when she could be showy but dumb) and the dollar chasing to Alexander Burke and her mediocre ilk. Tonight she has the guts to play her ace last: an encore of recent hit ‘Nothing’s Real But Love’ raises the roof and a packed hall roars approval. For all the shallow glitz shot out of the reality cannon, a couple of thousand punters on their feet prove that all they really want is a bagful of top tunes and someone who knows how to sing ‘em, properly sing ‘em. If Rebecca Ferguson really does want to do nothing but sing her young heart out, dreams of a future in which she’s still pulling a crowd in ten, twenty years, the answer is blindingly obvious and right under her nose.