Plan B, Café de Paris, London

Best-laid plans need some work
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The Independent Culture

Second albums are almost always fascinating, being the record on which artists start to develop and refine their sound. In the case of Plan B, however, his sophomore effort is set to be less a case of him reaching maturity and closer to a complete rebirth.

It was in 2006 that Ben Drew released Who Needs Actions When You Got Words, a raw debut that was critically praised for its combination of hip-hop peppered with violent lyrics and acoustic guitar backing. Now, after four years – during which time Drew has started an acting career which has included appearing in the Michael Caine Brit flick Harry Brown – he is back, having ditched his early sound to reinvent himself as a soul singer. The result is the upcoming concept album, The Defamation of Strickland Banks, that sees him adopt the alter-ego of an unjustly imprisoned singer by the name of Strickland Banks, with this intimate show being his first chance to show off his new creation before the record's release in March.

Any fans that showed up at the Café de Paris in central London unaware of his change of direction would have twigged pretty quickly, with the glitzy venue a world away from the violent inner-city streets that provided the settings for his first record. "If anyone out there doesn't wanna listen to soul tonight, then please leave," he says as he takes to the stage with his band, just in case anyone didn't get the message.

When they start with "Writing's on the Wall", Drew's voice is quite a revelation and it is clear he has the technical quality to pull it off. Sounding not dissimilar to Daniel Merriweather, it seems impossible that it can come from the same person that once rapped about murder and crack addiction so vividly. Dressed in a dapper suit, he also looks the part, and with backing vocals provided by three immaculately dressed singers perched on a balcony above the stage, there is no doubt that the style is there.

Whether this new venture has the substance, though, is another matter. The band itself are tight, and some of the livelier numbers get parts of the crowd dancing, but few of the songs stick in the mind once they have finished – and with virtually everyone hearing most of these songs for the first time, it is not much of a surprise that chatter can often be heard.

It would be unfair to pass final judgement on whether the new direction will be a success or not until the album is released, but on this evidence the songs are nice enough without much depth, save the catchy "Prayin'". Only the fast-paced "Stay Too Long" – one of only a few songs on which Drew raps – has any of his old roughness, a quality you feel the rest of the set is lacking.

Maybe once the album is released then his future gigs as Strickland Banks will be less about recreating a style and the songs themselves will start to shine. Still, you can't help but feel they will be much more compelling affairs if he can find a way to combine the rough and the smooth.

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