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Issue 1101

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Rebecca Ferguson: Royal Centre, Nottingham 27/02/12

Rebecca Ferguson Royal Centre, Nottingham, 27/2/12
Rebecca Ferguson Royal Centre, Nottingham, 27/2/12 Rebecca Ferguson Royal Centre, Nottingham, 27/2/12 Rebecca Ferguson Royal Centre, Nottingham, 27/2/12 Rebecca Ferguson Royal Centre, Nottingham, 27/2/12 Rebecca Ferguson Royal Centre, Nottingham, 27/2/12 Rebecca Ferguson Royal Centre, Nottingham, 27/2/12 Rebecca Ferguson Royal Centre, Nottingham, 27/2/12 Rebecca Ferguson Royal Centre, Nottingham, 27/2/12 Rebecca Ferguson Royal Centre, Nottingham, 27/2/12

In the 1600s, front doors of houses affected by bubonic plague were daubed with paint to warn of nasty things inside. For 4,000 years, humanity has been affected by Leprosy and years ago those infected were forced to carry bells and ring them as a warning. “Unclean, Unclean.”

In 2012, we have a thing called the curse of the X-Factor. That stigma often remains with a singer for their entire career, usually a short one. Symbolised by the use of a red X, and an often whispered reference to Beelzebub himself, schhhhh….Simon Cowell.

To win the glorified karaoke contest in front of millions of weekend TV viewers (who really should get out more) is more often than not, the kiss of death. A guaranteed hit album of mediocrity and the Christmas number one, singing a formulaic schmaltzy pop ballad that even Westlife would retch at.

Then hitting the headlines when inevitably dropped from the label, when the cash cow has stopped producing milk, even before “that difficult second album” can be dreamed about.

But to be voted off, and not scoop top prize means you are destined to have “reject” put in front of the shows’ title, every time you are mentioned in print, on radio or TV.

One single-parent secretary from Liverpool entered the show in 2005 and 2006 and failed to make the televised rounds. In 2007 she tried and failed, to make her name in P Diddy’s “Star Maker” contest in New York, her family and friends clubbing together to fund the trip. Not giving up, she had a crack at Britain’s Got talent in 2009, and once again, got the dreaded rejection slip.

In 2010, it was third time lucky when she had another go at the X-Factor, and this time she wowed the producers and then the judges with her unique voice. Her timid, bashful shyness and lack of self confidence almost did for her, but the public loved her. Introducing Miss Rebecca Ferguson…..

She got through to the final that year, and eventually came second to painter and decorator Matt Cardle.

I, like many out there in TV land, picked her out of the very first televised audition as someone very special. A singer who, with the right development and TLC, could make it on an international basis, just like Leona Lewis did.

I was on my knees in front of the goggle box, praying she would NOT win the damn contest, and be stuck with a millstone round her neck and then wake up one day with no career.

When she came second in that seventh series, I jumped for joy. Hoping she’d let the dust die down, have a strong team around her and could deliver a sparkling, credible debut album. Able to back that up with a cracking stage set to shake off the “X Factor Reject” label, and show people what she is capable of. But with a long-term view from her label, and not a quick buck mentality. Plus; some fast self-confidence lessons.

Well, debut album “Heaven” has been out since December and already gone Platinum. It peaked at number 3 in the UK album chart. The first single, “Nothing's Real But Love,” reached number nine in the singles chart, with A list air-play on both Radio 1 and 2.

She’s had consistently positive reviews of the album, including hard to please broadsheets, and kudos for the fact she co-wrote all ten songs. Mostly with Eg White, a collaborator with Adele and Duffy. There was a bidding war for the publishing rights to her songs, and a rumoured £1m deal.

No covers. Modern, commercial, credible tracks which show huge potential for Rebecca as an artist and as a song-writer. A great start.
So can she cut it live?

First of all, I want to say this. I am old enough to be her father, but I was absolutely mesmerised by just how stunningly beautiful she is, in the flesh so to speak. I was a few feet from her for the first few songs, to get some pix to go with this review, and I literally had my breath taken away by her natural beauty.

Rebecca really is a very beautiful young woman. If she ever makes it in the States, she is a ready-made Vogue cover star, for sure. Stunning. Sometimes putting me in mind of a young Diana Ross when she first started out at Motown.

She wore a one piece black trouser suit (my head tells me it is a cat suit, but I’m a man and probably several decades out with my knowledge of women’s clothes!) A see through black top, silver bangle on her right wrist. Black shiny six inch stilettos. Perfect hair and natural makeup. She could probably look a million dollars in a bin bag.

She used a radio mike for most of the show, but stood at a mike stand a few times to sing ballads. Next to her at the front of the stage was a little table, covered in a black cloth which had a bottle of water – which she spilled! – and a mug (probably hot water, lemon and honey for her vocal cords) on it. The only “prop” she had was a chrome bar chair, which she sat in once. The super trooper operators in the Gods at the back of the venue, would have had little concern in keeping up with her movements on stage.

The stage set was classy and more like a TV studio. Shiny reflective floor, risers for the band covered in tiny mirrored glass at the front (like a dissected mirror ball.) A giant circular shaped video screen at the back, her name emblazoned on it in the first song. She stands motionless and serene between the two risers, and we hear the intro to the first tune, crackling like a vintage vinyl record. She sings “Fighting Suspicions,” without taking a step.

She doesn’t need to. The 2,000-strong audience cheers and claps loudly. I think they would have reacted the same, even if she’d have forgotten the words and hummed for four minutes. But she didn’t. She gave us that voice. As it is on record. Better than it was on TV almost two years ago now.

Song two, she steps forward a few paces with radio mike in hand and belts out “Mr Bright Eyes. “ Then a few more steps forward and the strong RnB tune, “Glitter and Gold.” She wanders the stage end to end, pausing for a good few seconds in three places; stage right, stage left and centre stage - as though every last step had been rehearsed just like on TV. No cameras here tonight though, only mine.

Spherical lamps hanging down. A black backdrop covered in twinkling stars, and each side, vintage Hollywood movie style lights….
Well, she certainly has the face and presence for film. The camera loves her. Maybe one day we can expect a movie of her life, and like that fictional boxing champ Rocky, the story of a born fighter. How about “Beccy: Against All Odds.” Despite being skint, having two kids and dreaming of a singing career and record deal, she said no to several offers of a recording contract after the X factor, when the suits refused to let her write her own songs. She has guts, that’s for sure.
She has her marks (so she can be picked up by the follow spots) set out on the stage in tape, in the form of a red X. She just cannot get away from it can she?

So, her voice?

Unique. Perhaps shades of Nina Simone, from her early years. She puts me in mind of a young Aretha at times. But overall, Rebecca Ferguson IS and sounds like Rebecca Ferguson. A unique recording voice. Real. Raw talent. Unspoiled. Many say she is “world class.” She isn’t quite at that level yet for me. But, she will be.

She does LOOK like a big star. A glamour puss. Sultry beauty more akin to a 1950s jazz star than a 2012 talent show runner up. But she has superstar potential and a one-off voice that could melt ice.

She has grace. Sophistication and unlike most talent show contestants, and even some winners who should enjoy their 15 minutes of fame while it lasts, Rebecca has a long successful career ahead of her, if the stars align.

Never over-singing. Never pitchy. Sometimes perhaps in second gear through nerves or lack of confidence, when she could afford to really go for it and shove her voice into fifth. But it’ll happen, given time. Still a marvelous, if under-used instrument.

She has a resonant vibrato and a good range; from sexy low register to pitch perfect top notes. She is no Beyonce, Jessie J or Maria Carey with their vocal acrobatic party tricks, but she doesn’t need to be. The voice fits the material like a hand in a glove. Right now she may limit herself to the safer end of what she does, but in time, when she develops and gets more experience and more confidence in her own abilities, I am pretty sure Rebecca will stretch herself on the material she sings and how she uses those pipes.

But for now, she could surely afford to relax a heck of a lot more than she does on that stage. Rebecca spends a lot of the set staring at the floor, or eyes tightly closed, which indicates she is trying hard to focus on remembering all the lyrics to 11 songs, in what is a relatively short 65 minute set for a major headline act.

She has little to no interaction with her fine band. Aside from a glance and quick smile at the two fabulous backing singers in one song. Then teetering on high stilettos when lead guitarist Mike Moore climbs down off his riser, to play a tasty lead solo on his Paul Reed Smith guitar. But she stays a few feet from him at all times.

Some critics have made issue of Rebecca’s lack of on stage personality, and her rapport with the audience. Well, she could certainly benefit from improvement there, but she is a sensational and unique vocalist, when all is said and done. She is young. Inexperienced and shoved into the deep end from day one, singing to millions live on TV.

So, as this is her first ever tour and she’s a new artist, even though every other home in the land knows her name, give her a break. TV talent shows do not churn out the finished product. They are just the starting point and the fast track into the nation’s collective consciousness. Leona Lewis is hardly a witty raconteur, is she?
Rebecca is just an ordinary girl with a rare talent. A singer, not an after dinner speaker. It will all come together, with her beautiful looks and bloody brilliant voice. She just needs time and experience - and she’s getting it.

Her between-song patter, is not patter at all. She speaks little, but when she does, she has that thick as peanut butter Scouse accent, and sounds more like a timid, giggly teenage school girl on stage in assembly, than a pop star appearing before a full theatre of people who all paid just to see her. That speaking voice doesn’t go with that singing voice at all. But it is an endearing quality and not a negative. Better than the slick, glossy BS churned out by some artists; who are to sincerity what Ryanair is to luxury air travel. (Joss Stone take note.)

She starts off by telling the audience (of mainly 45+ in age group,) that fame and fortune isn’t what motivates her. Singing and being on a stage does that.

Later, when she thanks the audience for voting for her on the X factor, for buying her record and concert tickets, adding that she is “so, so, so grateful,” I really believe her. Every word. She comes across as a very sincere, honest, likeable young lady.

She has that rare voice, but a vulnerability that makes you want to protect her from the evils of this business. I think probably every ticket buyer for all 21 dates on her debut UK tour will feel the same too. The public fell in love with this shy, struggling, single parent. A fighter who has never given up on her dream. Trying to make a better life for her kids and for herself.

For some, her voice and her songs will be secondary. They have bought into Brand Rebecca. I bet they even buy Walkers Sunbites now, because of her TV ad’, and Nescafe Gold Blend since her track “Nothing's Real But Love," was used in a television advertisement for the coffee brand. Her back-story has sold her to the masses as an ordinary Liverpool lass with a huge talent, and an even bigger heart.
Tonight we are in Nottingham, at the virtually sold-out Royal Centre. Great acoustics and a perfect place to see and hear Rebecca before she ultimately ends up on a huge Arena stage. Those cavernous, sterile venues where 20,000 bums on seats pay through the nose to say they have seen (mostly via large video screens) the latest superstar. Nottingham must like the X Factor. This gig is two days before the X Factor tour rolls into town (at the local arena, of course.)

Rebecca is the second 2010 finalist to hit town. One Direction were there (Arena) last month. Winner Matt Cardle due the week after Rebecca, at this same venue. Fourth-placed Cher Lloyd is at Rock City in April. I think Rebecca enjoyed herself tonight, too, judging by her Tweet after the gig. “Awww nottingham I love you lovely people great crowd :) be back soon xxxx.”

Rebecca sings all 10 tracks from her album during the show. She gives us four covers too. Nothing at all predictable about any of her four choices. A brave move on two of them. To tackle The Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” is a big ask of any artist, but for a 25-year old demure British RnB singer, could perhaps be deemed ill advised. I got news for you. It works. The band was brilliant on this track, and as it has my favourite ever intro to any song, I paid particular attention and hoped they’d not try to fix what ain’t bust in the Glimmer Twins’ arrangement. They didn’t.

Could Rebecca deliver a strong enough vocal on this iconic song? Yes she could. She didn’t try for a rock chick impression either. She just did what she does, with her USP (Unique Singing Point) and made it work for that song.

The two fine backing vocalists, Wendi Harriott and Baby N’Sola were animated on this one and went loopy. Well, Rebecca wasn’t going to do a Tina Turner was she? Not in those heels!

She left the stage at the end of that song, to come back and stand at the left hand side of the stage on her red x mark – motionless for the start of the track. As the first line rang out of her mouth, the audience applauded loudly. Recognising the tune from her first TV audition. My fave song of all time, Sam Cooke’s glorious gospel, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Well, you cannot fake this song. This ain’t a wise choice for an average singer. You cannot sing this and not believe every single last word you are singing. Well, I can tell you it was packed full of emotion. Some tasty soul licks from Mike Moore on lead guitar too, and second guitarist Curtis Cumberbatch on a jumbo, vintage, white Falcon type electric guitar, providing some solid brush strokes to Mike’s inventive retro licks.

Some emotional gospel backing vocals from Wendi and Baby added value. But trust me, she lifted those lyrics off the page and made you believe that every single sentiment in that song applied to her. That change well and truly came for Ms Ferguson. More to come too. For Mum and her two youngsters, Lillie May (8) and Karl (7.) They will be very proud of what their go-getting, brave and talented Mummy has done for herself, for them and their future.

Being totally herself, she shared a secret: “I have just spilled water everywhere,” she giggled. A shout rings out from the back of the hall, and Rebecca squeals: “Oh, we got some scousers in tonight.” She is certainly proud of her roots, and I am sure her home city is proud of her.

A lot of Rebecca’s songs are about broken hearts, broken love and broken trust. She wears her heart on her sleeve in the songs she writes, and has clearly been hurt. Her recent relationship with fellow X Factor contestant Zayn Malik of the boy band One Direction has kept Twitter, the social networking sites and fan forums busy with chatter and vitriol about that topic. Slagging her off for going out with an 18-year-old, as she is 25 and has two children.

Rebecca apparently very upset at the attacks on her. That love pairing now over, but at least she has more fodder for her song writing. If life was sweet all the time, what would she write about? Lyrics as simple as say “I Want To Hold Your Hand” from a Liverpool artist, could never be a hit, could they?

Her other covers on the night were Drake’s, “I'll Take Care Of You” and the Kings Of Leon’s “Knocked Up.” Both done justice by Rebecca tonight. The latter a better vocal vehicle.

Her ode to love gone badly wrong in an abusive relationship, in “Shoulder To Shoulder,” for me is one of the main moments of the night. A stunning vocal performance and probably the best track on her album. It shows a depth of writing and an understanding of how to squeeze passion and emotion out of a song, but with equal balance so it is not a grab your hankie tear fest, better put to pedal steel and twangy telecaster on country radio, than on a modern pop record.

For the piano ballad, “Teach Me How To Be Loved,” she sits on a chrome chair in front of the keyboards, and seems to relax far more, perhaps as she now has nothing else to think about (specially falling off those heels) except singing the song. She delivers a great vocal.

“Too Good To Lose,” the next single which is released on 4th March, is a dose of Motown style, hand clapping, retro up-tempo groove. The band, led by MD Stephen Large on keys, was magnificent on this one. Jamie Morrison on drums and Drew McConnell on bass, locking in nicely together.

I heard this song from her album and it didn’t leap out at me. But tonight, I thought it could well be a bigger hit than her first single. We’ll see. I say top 5. Tenner anyone?

She asks us if we ever had a crush on anyone. She admits she is terrible with crushes, and is guaranteed to embarrass her kid sister when she tells us she adores Justin Bieber. Rebecca wrote the disco vibe track “Fairy Tale (Let Me Live My Life This Way)” about having a crush. It is the first time I heard her vocal wobble a little, on this song. Especially on the lower register.

She seemed a tad unsure of herself here. But it soon passed. Before “Run Free,” she asks the audience to get up and “have a little dance with me.” Some do, many don’t. It is not that kind of audience, and many would not be able to move in the morning without a rub down with Ralgex and a hot bath, if they did. Rebecca herself manages a few baby steps, but again, her footwear ain’t made for dancin’ the night away.

She leaves the stage to rapturous applause and returns to thank her fans for voting for her, on that TV talent show she was once in. Did I mention that show before? She announced the next song was written to highlight the fact that nothing else matters, other than the people you love and care for. Nothing should ever come before them. She then gives us the hit single “Nothing's Real But Love,” and in fine voice. Again, a sincere delivery where you just know she is singing about herself.

The entire audience is on their feet as she finishes the song - and she’s gone. There is no more. A standing ovation, and I suspect that’ll be the case at most of the venues she plays on this tour and future tours. She is loved. She has a great voice. She is a fighter and has earned what she has got. She is not just a pretty face. She can write too.

Her songs may be a bit stuck in “men have turned me over, and I have to learn from those lessons” mode, but she’ll write with new people, she’ll develop as a writer and as an artist. She’ll work with new producers who’ll bring something new to the party for her.

She will grow. She will get better. She’ll learn that songs do not all have to be self-help therapy, and all about your own life. They can be ambiguous or total fiction.

Support act on the tour is British soul boy Jay James Picton. A new name and pretty much unknown, but I doubt that will be for much longer. Think Plan B meets James Morrison meets Maverick Sabre. He really went for it for his 40 minute set and the audience lapped it up. Not an empty seat and the bar was empty. Unusual for an unknown opening act.

His songs are punchy, dramatic and structured. He has a new single out now which features John legend. His debut CD “Play It By heart” out in June on Decca, has John Legend and Booker T Jones playing on it and co-writing with Picton.

An ex Royal Navy Physical Training Instructor, self taught guitarist and singer-songwriter. Tonight just the mike in his hand, no guitar. Legend, Jones, Roger Daltrey and Hal David are among admirers of this young man’s talents.

Five years ago he had never been on a stage or written a song. Using internet tutorials, he taught himself guitar and got the bug. Wearing a short sleeved pressed white shirt, black slacks, belt and shiny black shoes, and with a short back and sides, he looks more like an off duty cop than a music star. But there’s something in that voice, and in some of those songs that holds the attention.

Backed by keys, guitar and drums, we are not likely to forget him - there is a giant black portable screen with his name emblazoned across it in white lettering, and a plug for the website. A bit naff and more corporate function style, than a UK tour with a chart star.

His music stands up on its own, and those who like it will bother to find out who he is without subtle as an air raid and unnecessary on stage “branding.” Certainly a guy going places and worth further investigation. Punters in the interval told him so.

Rebecca Caroline Ferguson. There’s a name we are unlikely to forget, or someone who is likely to ever be out of favour with the British public if she stays grounded. I really cannot see her EVER becoming a stroppy Diva, like some lesser talented female singers. No matter how brightly her star shines. Her CD “Heaven” is released on Columbia in the USA on 29th May, and destined to catapult her into another galaxy methinks.

But my bet is she will always be Beccy from Liverpool, who didn’t just dream of being a star. She made it happen – growing up in care homes and foster homes - and even at 14, getting a job so she could fund singing lessons. She used graft, perseverance and being true to herself. She earned it and grabbed it. With dignity and gratitude.

She even refused to let X Factor bosses tell her “tough childhood” story on the show, for fear that yet another contestant’s sob story would work against her. Wanting her voice to be the key to her success.

Now that’s what I call a great role model.

Rebecca’s set list: Fighting Suspicions, Mr Bright Eyes , Glitter & Gold, Diamond To Stone, Shoulder To Shoulder, Knocked Up, Gimme Shelter, A Change Is Gonna Come, Teach Me How to Be Loved, Too Good To Lose, Take Care, Fairytale (Let Me Live My Life This Way), Run Free, Nothing's Real But Love.


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