A touch of Northern soul from a cracking Liver girl

Mel C | Sheffield City Hall
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The Independent Culture

A few years ago, just before the Spice Girls elbowed their way onto the music scene, a sporty girl from Liverpool called Eunice won a place in the nation's heart on the mega-cheesy Gladiators. A kick-boxing champion, she was very sporty. And also a bit "spicy" - in the sense of "tasty", that is. (She famously had a fight with one of the bulging-Lycra gladiators).

A few years ago, just before the Spice Girls elbowed their way onto the music scene, a sporty girl from Liverpool called Eunice won a place in the nation's heart on the mega-cheesy Gladiators. A kick-boxing champion, she was very sporty. And also a bit "spicy" - in the sense of "tasty", that is. (She famously had a fight with one of the bulging-Lycra gladiators).

Curiously, Sporty Spice, or Melanie C as she likes to be known now, is also from Liverpool, is also famous for her high kicks, and she also famously had a falling out with that bulging-Lycra mega-cheesy pop gladiator, Ginger Spice. And, like her Scouser dopplegänger, Eunice, there have been some predictable but unfounded speculations about Mel's sexuality. (Apparently, pining lesbian fans, bless 'em, keep asking Mel when she is going to "come out".)

As you might hope, Mel C clearly isn't bothered much by the rumours. Tonight she "sports" stonewashed blue jeans, red trainers and an "I Love Sheffield" vest, tattoos, a decidedly tomboyish stance and a somewhat brawny physique, though her new blonde bob hairdo is perhaps a nod towards conventional femininity. Mel C isn't worried because the speculation about her sexuality is entirely misplaced. Mel C isn't a lesbian, you see. She's just Northern.

Like, funnily enough, the audience for the Steel City leg of her Northern Star tour. Mostly female, and mostly around Mel's age, they don't sport quite so many tattoos (nor, for that matter, do most of the lads they've dragged along), but many certainly share her no-nonsense approach to dresswear. Even if most of them have made more of an effort than she has, quite a few are wearing cut-off vests like hers that show off big-boned shoulders, fulsome navels and ample hips. This isn't to say that they're not attractive, just that they're not so bothered whether you think they are or not. Which is, of course, irresistible.

Like Mel C's music, her audience is unpretentious, out for a good time, and full of heart. "I think she's reelly, reelly fab, I do," enthuses the twenty-something lass on my right in a voice that sounds as if it should be behind a supermarket check-out in a Victoria Wood sketch. And like a good Northerner, Mel isn't afraid to take the piss out of herself a bit: "Ay, ay, ay!" she says at one point between songs, doing the "Scouser strut", leaning back, hands pushed out.

Perhaps deliberately, the set is awful - giant toadstools covered in a Woolworth's Picasso print; and Mel's stage routine is real karaoke stuff. When she wants to signal "sincerity" - or just a difficult-to-reach note - she hunches her shoulders together and half-closes her eyes, her left hand displaying the "OK" sign rising towards the ceiling - a gesture which, I have to say, wouldn't sell me a used car. (Northerness might be associated with sincerity, but you have to remember that Mel's a Scouser, which is a very special kind of Northerness: see also that other "sincere" Scouser star, Craig in Big Brother.)

Mel also keeps puzzling her fans by rocking out with some sub-Robert Palmer material. And while she may well be the spunkiest of the Spice Girls, the fact of the matter is that Mel, despite or maybe because of her winsome boisterousness, doesn't have nearly enough edge - and her current haircut is far too fluffy - to carry this kind of material. (Eunice, on the other hand...)

None of this really matters in the end, because much of her pop material,which fortunately makes up the major part of the evening, is corking stuff and she has a cracking pop voice. The seductive white R'n'B of "Never Be the Same Again" and the genuinely uplifting pop-trancey cheapness of "I Look to You", which brings the house down and gets the girls and their not-so-reluctant boyfs up on their bopping feet, are products of priceless pop instincts which leave the solo output of her Spice sisters - or indeed their recent group efforts - sitting.

Mel C is another reminder - if it were needed - that pop music is Northern. The South doesn't need pop music; after all, Southerners don't have souls (this from a Northerner who has lived in the South so long he's lost his). In the South, pop music has to be cool, or trendy, make a statement or sell clothes. In the North, like our women, it just has to be catchy. Maybe it's because it's a matriarchal culture. Maybe it's because Northern girls want you to take them on their terms or not at all.

And Northern star Mel C may not look or act like much of a star, but that's exactly why she is one. Alright, our kid?

 

Mel C: Royal Court, Liverpool (0151 709 4321), Tuesday; Colston Hall, Bristol (0117 922 3686), Wednesday; St David's Hall, Cardiff (02920 878 4444), Thursday; de Montford Hall, Leicester (0116 233 3111), Saturday; touring to 1 October. Mark Simpson's book 'The Queen is Dead' is published by Arcadia next month

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