KT Tunstall, Academy, Birmingham

Clean pop girl shows she's capable of dirtying down
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

KT Tunstall straddles the worlds of glossy commercial pop and idealistic communal folk. The Brit and Ivor Novello-winning, Mercury-nominated singer-songwriter sold four million copies of her debut, Eye To The Telescope only after a decade of happily penniless scuffling with Fife's alt.folk cradle, the Fence Collective.

That has made her an appealingly earthy presence in the blandest period for mainstream pop since the early 1970s. That image is enhanced by a thoroughgoing commitment to green issues (highlighted by a pre-gig film last night), and an undramatic liking for a drink, a relief after Amy Winehouse's addictive plunge. That didn't stop most of Eye To The Telescope evaporating in the mind, minutes after playing – too close to the insufferable politeness of a Dido or James Blunt, and too short of the heart-gripping humanity of her heroine, PJ Harvey. New album Drastic Fantastic addresses the problem with sharpened aggression, evident on this UK tour's first night.

Her Fence Collective guru, King Creosote, stands in as support, after the still more other-worldly folk singer Willy Mason pulled out, companythat Kate Nash, say, for all her naive promise, could never attract.

Tunstall soon shows why. Quickly disposing of early favourite "The Other Side of the World'', new single "Hold On'' shows how she has started to wrest control of her music – from her own timid instincts, perhaps, most of all.

There are echoes of African and Brazilian street parties in its rhythms and of a gratefully sloughed-off relationship in the lyric. Heavily domesticated Southern soul, and a Beatlesque pleasure in harmony and melody also draw you in.

Moody Nick Drake guitar lines on "White Bird'' show how Tunstall, closeted from pop and notions of cool as a child, has dug up potential roots. The way her breakthrough song, "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree'', a beginners attempt at folk mystery, is sung with a raw Lulu shout displays an honest musical instinct and open mind, above all.

Tunstall's reference to a 1980s one-hit wonder mystifies the crowd but the all-female screams and banter that rise from the dark show a deeper connection. Oddly attractive while refusing to be overtly sexualised, she has a strong gay and straight women's fan base.

Her drummer and lover Luke Bullen's part in a country song about their near-split, "Someday Soon", is a soap opera most people here know. "Funnyman" is reference to the now-healed mental problems of a friend from Fife, and has deeper resonance.

Her good heart, backed by an adventurous band, can't, though, take her into the realm of really startling artistry she seems to desire. KT will never be PJ. But as a pop-star intent on dirtying down, not prettying up, she is admirable.