We missed you," cries a supportive voice from the crowd as Corinne Bailey Rae takes to the stage. "I missed you too," she replies with a smile but, really, this is one pop star with more to worry about of late than retaining her fan base. This is Bailey Rae's first full gig since the 2008 death of her husband, Jason Rae, from a suspected drugs overdose and, while she makes no direct mention of her loss, it looms large in the songs that dominate tonight's short-but-bittersweet set.
Beginning with the slow-burning "Are You Here", a lyrical hymn to her late husband, it's clear that the breezy, but ultimately lightweight, pop-soul of her self-titled 2006 debut is a thing of the past. In its place are a series of emotional, but ultimately life-affirming ballads and some surprisingly robust guitar-led songs. This new sound lies somewhere between the jazzy, cocktail-party heartbreak of early Cardigans albums and the "Back to Black" follow-up Amy Winehouse will probably never get round to making; a curious combination on paper but enthralling enough in the flesh to make her forthcoming second album, The Sea, one of the most anticipated releases of 2010. Whether the new album will hit the commercial heights of her debut remains to be seen, but judged on tonight's performance, you're unlikely to hear a braver, more powerful record in the next 12 months.
The new material may lack obvious pop hits – only the upbeat melody of "Paris Nights and New York Mornings" makes an instant impression – but it's more than made up for by the sheer redemptive power of raw, starkly beautiful songs like "I'd Do It All Again" and "I'd Like to Call It Beauty."
Linking everything together, meanwhile, is Bailey Rae's voice. Previously honey-coated and radio-friendly, it now emerges from under her riot of corkscrew curls as a notably less smooth instrument, but one soaked with the kind of genuine soul you'll never find on The X Factor.
This new-found grit also enhances the few older songs she plays, with "Like a Star" and "Til It Happens to You" unlocking previously hidden depths, but, really, tonight is about moving on.
An encore of her biggest hit, "Put Your Records On", strikes a rare moment of uncomplicated joy, but ultimately it's the new material that leaves the biggest impression. You may not have noticed her absence, but pretty soon you'll wonder where these songs have been all your life.