Roots Manuva, Forum, London

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The Independent Culture

This was a promising start to Rodney Smith and his band's winter tour, though the south-London rapper had another aim: demolishing the perception of him as hip-hop's chief miserablist. His current album, Awfully Deep, contains so many references to distrust and misery, you assume he suffered under the pressure of being the UK's pre-eminent hip-hop artist, the leader in a distinctly uncrowded field.

However ill he became while recording Awfully Deep, on stage he was positively exuberant. The stand-out numbers, the title track and "Too Cold", were famed for references to his label taking him to the " farms of the funny" and money's malign influence. All this in the wake of his breakthrough success with its predecessor, Run Come Save Me. Here, though, he turned lyrics on their head, roaring out choruses as if they were calls to party.

Smith's relaxed attitude was a welcome change to hip-hop's usual macho posturing, though his distracted air between songs was unsettling. On record, he has railed against being hyped as UK rap's saviour, and he still struggled to deal with an audience relatively vast for his peers. His co-rapper Ricky Ranking was a versatile performer, especially with his sweet gospel voice, but lacked the character to make up for Smith's shortcomings. More compelling in that respect were his musicians.

Clad in an eclectic array of headgear, Smith's six-piece backing group were far from an anonymous house band. Not only did they add colour; they re-created, even expanded on, Awfully Deep's vibrant production. If they were not as formidable as those masters of live-hip-hop The Roots, their bassist still showed that his instrument could match the power of the most sophisticated synth. Two companions replied with trumpet, sax and delightful flute on the previously foreboding "Too Cold". Especially impressive was the new number "Calypso Calypso".

It was another rhythmic style to file beside Smith's questing mix of dub reggae, cutting-edge dancehall and breakbeats. Of the new material, " Elvis Cost" matched the ska riff from Costello's "Watching the Detectives" with "All Along the Watchtower" verses in ungainly fashion, while "Doo Goo Machine" hinted that the rapper wished to apply his impeccable production skills to more upbeat material.

Though Awfully Deep is Smith's most solid album, nothing has been as accessible as Run's stand-out track, "Witness (1 Hope)". Dropped half-way through the set, it ignited the crowd briefly, matched only by the new single, "Seat Yourself". Here, Smith brought together once more bubbly tune and infectious lyric. On this evidence, his label need not phone the funny farm, for Roots Manuva is back on track.

Manchester Academy, tonight; Glasgow, tomorrow; Brighton, Monday; Birmingham, Tuesday; Norwich, Wednesday; London, 2 December

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