Corinne Bailey Rae, Bush Hall, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Bush Hall is packed to its Edwardian rafters. Baubles hanging from the venue's chandeliers give the place a festive air, but there's none of the usual back-of-the-room chatter. The throng of in-the-know scenesters realise they've got a ticket to see the next big thing, and they stand in rapt silence, giving themselves over to the sweet, mulled-wine voice that fills the room.

These are the dulcet tones of Corinne Bailey Rae. Sounding like a cross between Billie Holiday and Macy Gray, the Leeds-born-and-bred singer is poised to take 2006 by storm with her sumptuous soul-pop. Signed to EMI, Bailey Rae has spent this year steadily amassing a collection of high-profile fans. Jools Holland invited her on his Later show before she'd even released her debut single, "Like a Star", while everyone from Burt Bacharach to the Kaiser Chiefs have been dropping the 26-year-old's name in interviews. And, judging by the sighs of the crowd, that fanbase grows again tonight.

Bailey Rae found her voice by singing in church, but it was the teenage discovery of Led Zeppelin and the riot-grrrl rockers L7 that caused her to form and front an indie-rock band called Helen.

The name may have been prosaic, but local success quickly led to an offer of a deal from the home of Slipknot, Roadrunner Records. But just before they signed, the band's bassist unexpectedly fell pregnant, scuppering Helen's dreams and sending Bailey Rae back to the everyday realities of studying for a degree in English and, more pertinent to her music career, working part-time as a cloakroom attendant in a jazz club. There, eventually, she began to take turns on the stage herself.

Bailey Rae's musical journey may have been a winding one, but it helped to nurture her into something quite special. For starters, there's that voice. Either accompanied by her own acoustic guitar or backed by her tight four-piece band, hers is a smiling caress of a voice that soars effortlessly from lungs seemingly too small to contain it. It guides her sassy, well-crafted and honest songs, commanding their flitting tempos and driving their smooth Motown-tinged melodies.

But it's Bailey Rae's captivating and disarmingly natural performance that really impresses tonight. The singer possesses an enchanting mix of everywoman charm and gentle self-assurance; throughout the show, she radiates happiness, and that feeling is infectious. Between songs, too, she chats and jokes with the audience, making the sold-out venue seem as intimate as her front room.

Of course, these are early days for Bailey Rae (she has released only that one single), and, after a 50-minute set of nine songs, she bids us good night. The crowd holler noisily for more, but a smiling Bailey Rae tells them they'll just have to hold on until the release of her debut album in March. Judging by tonight, it should be well worth the wait.

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