There's a regrettable wave of nostalgia sweeping soul music right now. In an age when Jerkins, Timbaland, the Neptunes and their peers are deconstructing soul and reassembling it into radical new shapes, many others, inexplicably, want to drag things back to the 1970s.
Angie Stone is guilty as charged, and she could scarcely be more brazen about it. "Soul Insurance", track one from her Mahogany Soul album, lifts its opening lines from LaBelle, and closes by namechecking Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway and Betty Wright.
And yet, you can't help but acquit her. It's partly because she possesses a voice that's deep like the Mariana Trench and rich like Bill Gates. But it's mainly due to her enormous personal charm and charisma (she has tonight's audience in the palm of her hand within seconds).
Clichés which would normally seem criminal feel oddly acceptable from her. Take, for example, her habit of dispensing maternal homilies. Your man's run off with your best friend? "Don't hate the playa, hate the game." (Angie has more opening bar talkovers than Gladys Knight). The same goes for the sentimentalism of couplets like "I'd rather be picking up bottles of cans if you can't be my man/ I'd rather be homeless in the streets with no food to eat". (It has to be said that Angie would survive longer than most of us.)
Maybe it's because she sounds as if she's been there. Before she made her name with cameos on D'Angelo's Brown Sugar, she was living as a single mother on the breadline in South Carolina. When she sings, "I've only got 20 dollars 'til I get my cheque next week," she knows what she's talking about.
Somehow, Stone's shameless stagecraft – it's "Where my girls at?" after three songs, then "Where my brothers at?" three songs later – doesn't seem cheesy. For "Brotha", the single currently tickling the UK Top 40, she invites "seven significant brothers" onstage for a talent competition. This is usually a nightmarish ploy, but in her hands, it's great fun. The winner is a scruffy looking feller with a strong Jamaican inflection, and at a signal from Angie, the band switch the song into a reggae rhythm without missing a beat. A normally reserved London crowd goes nuts.
You've heard the story of the blind men and the elephant. When I first saw Doves, then unsigned, at the 100 Club, I saw grown men – men whose taste I generally trust – enraptured, transported, tears in their eyes. Me? I felt as if I'd grabbed a handful of elephant dung.
This time around, I can see the point. To a degree. The best Doves material is constructed from Northern Soul chord sequences played on rock instruments (if we must have rock instruments, then we might as well use them for this), ornamented by a twinkling piano which gives their songs a not-unpleasant Talk Talk sheen. The problem is that they're just a little dull. The relentless 4/4 mid tempo becomes wearing, and when Jimmy Goodwin tells us "You've been the best audience so far", it's the nearest he comes to connecting with the crowd. Doves deal in tastefulness without expression. "The Cedar Room", their most popular song, is the perfect exemplar: we must imagine the room beautiful, but bare.
When Travis sing "Sing", sing "Sing" is what Newcastle does. Loudly. It didn't take the Brits to tell us what we already knew: the Best Band award was merely a coronation. Travis have supplanted Oasis as The People's Band.
For better or worse? I'd say "for worse", were it not for the fact that Oasis themselves are clearly far more evil. Much of Travis's material is plain awful. "Driftwood" is one long tortured metaphor, "Happy" (the one which has been adopted by Scottish football fans) is asinine in the extreme, and the banal Buddhism of "Side" ("there is no wrong, there is no right" – oh yeah? What about Mugabe's death camps?) is excruciating.
The shadow of Oasis looms large over Fran Healy. On "Writing To Meet You", he asks "What's a Wonderwall anyway?" (The locals ought to know: the original "wonderwall", against which Jack and Bobby used to kick a football, is in nearby Ashington.) One fan asks whether Fran loves Oasis. "You've got to love Oasis," he answers diplomatically. "We toured with them three times. They're the nicest guys you could hope to meet." To reinforce the point, he dedicates "Flowers in the Window" to the Gallaghers. The difference between the two bands, however, is simple: Travis are the Oasis who don't take the number one, and don't rub your face in the number two.
The thing that Travis have, and which Oasis lack, however, is a certain human warmth. Healy, in his baseball hat, baggy jeans and Snoopy T-shirt, looks as if he's just fallen out of bed, and less like a pop star than the majority of the audience. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he has an ability to emote (in "Last Train" he seems to be genuinely in tears), and above all, a compulsion to communicate.
One last contrast with Oasis. Unlike the Gallaghers, who foster loutishness and belligerence, Travis seem to have the same pacifying effect on young males that ecstasy legendarily had on football crowds. Biceps are relaxed, arms used only for group hugs. Perhaps Travis records should be dispensed by the state, soma-like, with precisely this aim. Is it a conspiracy theory too far to suggest that it's already happening?
Travis: Wembley Arena, London (020 8902 0902), Wed; MEN Arena, Manchester (0161 930 8000), Fri; Odyssey Arena, Belfast (028 9073 9074), Sat; and touringReuse content