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Cherry Ghost, Hard Rock Café, London

"You can shout abuse if you want," offers Cherry Ghost's Simon Aldred. "It's kind of what we're used to." Predictably, his 2008 Ivor Novello Best Contemporary Song award has not gone to the head of a man who looks ready to flinch reflectively from praise. The self-deprecation keeps coming: on learning that the audience for this intimate showcase gig are competition-winners, he sympathises: "And we're the prize!"

Aldred's features are rumpled and lived in, his brow furrowed, much like his characters' bruised lives. He shares his style of Northern, working-class, taproom romance with friends and fellow Lancastrians Elbow. The title song of his first album, Thirst for Romance, with its protagonist caught between a dreamt-of beach and the factory floor, sums up a theme scattered through tonight's set. The last bus of the same album's "4am", and the probably lost lover he watches sleeping in that dead hour, occupy similar borderlines.

"The Night They Buried Sadie Clay" goes all the way into darkness, detailing the clothes a suicide left behind. A trumpet is her last post, and drums clatter her out to sea. As Sinatra almost titled his most melancholy album, Aldred's songs are for losers only – in the knowledge that covers most of us eventually.

His band are a full, strong presence in this packed bar, mostly adopting a chugging country beat. Then, on "Diamond in the Grind", an organ's ballroom sway underpins the song's stately yearning, Aldred suddenly sounds a more old-school, crooning balladeer, and Richard Hawley seems the transpennine comparison. "People Help The People", Aldred's Ivor Novello winner, is a quiet anthem to community: "If you're homesick/ Give me your hand..." He muscularly clutches the mic-stand, but drops his eyes from real assertion. Yet by the end, he is cautiously exultant – in love at least in a song, as if his music is slowly freeing him.