Brendan Benson, Electric Ballroom, London

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The Independent Culture

Once a nervous live performer, this Detroit solo artist has finally found the confidence that his beautiful, touching and rousing work deserves.

Once a nervous live performer, this Detroit solo artist has finally found the confidence that his beautiful, touching and rousing work deserves.

It's been a rocky ride for Benson on his way to becoming the foremost practitioner of power pop, that unfashionable genre where rock sensibilities propel easy, accessible tunes. The Beatles and The Beach Boys were past masters, while in Benson's music you'll hear anything from ELO through The Cars to Squeeze.

Having suffered major-label neglect and legal wrangles for much of his career, the 34-year-old has made it to his third album. He's been backed by Jack White, and the two have recorded a set of duets for release next year. This tour, though, was about the songs from his own triumphant new album, The Alternative to Love.

As recently as earlier this year, nerves led to fluffed intros and forgotten lines at his UK dates, but this time the boyish front-man was in total command. As trim and long-limbed as Beck Hansen, Benson was less LA showman and more laid-back Louisiana, where he spent many of his formative years. His drawl betrayed his southern roots and gave his lyrics a deceptively languid quality. With the perky tunes, this masked the dark undercurrent of the highlight, "Feel Like Myself". "You'll be sorry the next time you see me," he growled: it could be about the end of an affair, though you could not help but think of the record company that dumped him.

Such songs worked well in spite of a pared-down backing of drums, bass and lead guitar/keyboard that gave a driving garage-rock feel. This band could still show how Benson has given recent numbers more space to breathe with increasingly layered arrangements, so the organ-driven "Get It Together" contrasted nicely with the acoustic-led "Cold Hands (Warm Heart)".

Not all numbers worked well live. The more intimate "What I'm Looking For" required rawer emotions, but he failed to rise to the challenge. As with many studio mavens, he's fine when he plays with Spectoresque chimes and horn sections, but less happy showing his wounds to an audience.

Still, on top form, Benson's understated delivery had its moments. He returned for an encore in the daintiest of manners - "Thank you; I didn't want to leave you so soon" - before he sandwiched the anthemic "Tiny Spark" between a biblical ditty that owed something to southern preachers and the obscure B-side "No Dial Tone"; they, too, were compelling.

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