Saturday 24 February 2018

Pop Review: John Newman, at the Academy, Dublin

John Newman
John Newman
Ed Power

Ed Power

With his Rick Astley quiff and idiosyncratic dress sense — tonight's look might kindly be described as Dr Who: The Downton Abbey Years — John Newman could at first glance be mistaken for an X Factor quarter-finalist struggling to readjust to normality.

But a mishmash of fashion faux pas has done little to arrest the 23-year-old Yorkshireman's extraordinary trajectory, which began with his guest turn on the Rudimental chart-topper ‘Feel The Love’ and has carried through to his UK number one album, Tribute.

From the depths of small-town northern England, Newman has several attributes invaluable in a would-be megastar: a relentless hunger, a soulfulness coloured by genuine struggle — including the death of two friends in a car crash — and a keen understanding that music offers an escape from a future of blue-collar drudgery.

Above all, he possesses an astonishing voice, sensitive when required, jagged and forceful should the need arise.

He put it to cathartic use on his 2013 hit ‘Love Me Again’, a bluesy stomper written in the aftermath of the first major break-up of his life. On paper the track risked collapsing beneath Newman's self-pity, as oppressive as the Byrlcreem he uses to wedge his hair in place. However, the force of his singing eclipsed the subject matter, resulting in something transcendent and truly special.

In interviews, Newman has made little secret of his drive and, on his Irish debut, you catch glimmers of that ambition. At the beginning a white screen is suspended over the stage, upon which is beamed footage of the singer name-checking his influences (from Elvis and The Jacksons to Fatboy Slim and Jay Z). The curtain falls to reveal Newman, built like a rugby league player and flanked by a band and two backing vocalists, in a chequerboard colour scheme.

Newman's old-school pipes have prompted comparisons with Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye (artists the newcomer explicitly wishes to emulate) as well as latter day Brit-soul figures like Emeli Sande and Plan B. Far from a carefully curated museum piece, though, his performance is thoroughly contemporary, spruced up with thumping house piano and choruses calibrated for maximum pay-off. The only real criticism is that the concert occasionally verges on too much of a good thing. ‘Love Me Again’ is saved for the closing dash, by which point you might be forgiven for wondering if you hadn't already heard the same tune repackaged several times.

No doubt such rough edges and inconsistencies will be smoothed over as Newman continues his ascent. For now, he is a work in progress — albeit an exceedingly talented and very charming one.

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