Macy Gray was a diva from the moment she picked up a mic. And fittingly, if frustratingly, she keeps her crowd waiting two hours, with mixed levels of patience, before appearing with only the scantiest apology. Making her 16-piece band moon at us, however, is surely taking diva-ish haughty contempt too far (even if their white shorts spell "Introducing The Id" in sparkly blue letters). Clad in a frilly shirt/leather jerkin combo surely half-inched from the Old Vic's wardrobe department (a box marked Cinderella or Les Mis), her familiar microphone hair now twisted into tumbling tendrils, Macy's appearance, like the setting, may be theatrical, but there's little of the assured show-womanship of last year's Brixton show. One of those shy/extrovert conundrums that nature so often throws up, she's in reticent mode tonight, and barely speaks between songs.
The nerves are understandable: this is a sneak preview of her new album. The jury shall remain resolutely out on most of the material – mainly Stax/Prince big band soul and uptempo funk – although the trite "Sexual Revolution", which could be an out-take from Hair hints at Second Album Syndrome. "Relating to a Psychopath", the single "Sweet Baby" and the swinging Sixties-tinged ballad "Hey Young World II" are better, and the peculiar Weimar cabaret pastiche "Oblivion" sounds fantastic, Macy wielding a whip while her guitarist does the old Bob-Dylan-lyrics-cards thing (somewhat out of sync).
When "I've Committed Murder" – the first oldie – provokes an outbreak of dancing, the Old Vic stewards react as though a riot has broken out and force everyone to sit. "Macy, they won't let us dance!" cry the terpsichorean renegades. She can't hear, and just grins "Ya know it!" (They'll eventually get their wish as Macy mischievously hosts yet another chaotic stage invasion for "Sex-o-Matic Venus Freak").
She reappears for the encores in a red quilted dressing gown for a stunning Jerry Wexler-style Atlantic soul ballad "Forgiveness", before teasing with a 30 second snatch of "I Try", the song which inspired most here to part with their £15. "We've all heard that one a million times," she yawns, but the Teletubbies-style consensus is clear: "Again, again!"
At Subterania, a man in a scruffy striped shirt, steel-rimmed specs and a battered fishing hat slouches onstage, half boho/half hobo, swigging a bottle of champers like it's a 40oz. He looks like a student who's won the Lottery, or a tramp who's shoplifted Oddbins. Only when he flashes his gold teeth, whips off his rags to reveal the giant yellow W and tells us exactly who he's here to represent do you believe that this is one of the most important men in hip-hop.
Bobby Digital is the high-tech, high-rolling alter-ego of Robert Diggs, better known as The RZA, Godfather of the Wu-Tang Clan and preposterouously prolific production genius. And in case we're in any doubt, he orders his DJ to press Play. At the words "Tiger style ... tiger style," the place erupts. Eight years down the line, "Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthin' ta Fuck Wit'" still sounds as staggeringly alien and new as it did the first time the world heard Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), an even greater achievement than ever after nearly a decade of imitators. Identity asserted and nostalgia satisfied, it's back to the pressing matter of showcasing Digital Bullet, the new Bobby Digital album. But not before asking someone to pass him a blunt. "I ain't had any weed in, like, five days," he gasps.
An audience singalong on new number "It Must Be Bobby" is doomed as no-one knows the lyrics, and he subsequently takes care to teach us each chorus. He also shows us how to do the Wu signal, hooking his thumbs together and making a flying "W" with his hands. There's a tacky moment when he invites girls from the audience to dance onstage to new single "La Rumba", then meets with considerable reluctance when he tries to pull their bras off. "In Miami they take all that shit off. You see some pussy hair there."
Spreading himself too thin is an accusation often levelled at The RZA, and usually without justification. However, there are signs that his rhyming muse has deserted him. The lyrics on Digital Bullet are a dispiriting mix of toilet-wall humour, casual misogyny, pointless bragging ("I sold 20 million records") and gun worship (he sees no contradiction between boasting that "My Glock goes pop-pop-pop" one minute, and asking us to join him in mourning 2 Poetic, 2Pac, and Biggie the next). That said, his continuing musical mastery – notably the mindblowing use of varispeed on "Brooklyn Babies" – bodes well. In case anyone dared wonder, he rubbishes rumours that the Wu are to split: "The only way out of the Wu-Tang is death". Hopefully it'll be a while yet, popping Glocks allowing.
With Bobby Digital in such belligerent mood, you'd think Kelis might keep her head down. After all, "Got Ya Money", her duet with The RZA's incarcerated sidekick Ol' Dirty Bastard, sounds more like a taunt with every day he spends inside. In any case, all the evidence suggests that she's already leaving her hip-hop connections behind. The big hair and small dress are alarmingly reminiscent of Tina Turner (only the trainers betray her rap origins). She's "so pleased to be here", so pleased to see "all her friends", and ever so slightly showbiz.
Happily, she can carry it off. With a 10-piece band behind her, Kelis – one of the few singers with a bling-bling face – seems ready to make the step from Junior Mary J Blige up to fully-fledged soul diva, a balladeer in the Roberta Flack mould who can funk like Patti Labelle too (there's even a version of the Doors' "Light My Fire", à la Shirley Bassey. It's a little too chin-strokingly jazzy at times – for much of the set, it's midnight at the oasis and you expect to see Kelis putting her camel to bed – but "Ghetto Children" livens things up. New single "Young Fresh and New" is surprisingly heavy, recalling the metallic funk of En Vogue's "Free Your Mind", but nowhere near as surprising as the encore: after "Caught Out There" (and "I hate you so much right now" screamalong) and a chorus of "Happy Birthday" (she's 21 today), the band launches into a full rock-out version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit". As a finale, Kelis does the splits and collapses on the floor. You don't get that from Tina Turner.Reuse content