Sandi Thom, Islington Academy, London<img src="http://www.independent.co.uk/template/ver/gfx/threestar.gif" height="1" width="1"/><img src="http://www.independent.co.uk/template/ver/gfx/threestar.gif" height="10" width="47"/>

A virtual star faces reality
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The Independent Culture

"This is a bit of a crazy thing for us, really," confides the petite and exceptionally long-haired Sandi Thom, who was playing gigs from her Tooting basement only a week ago.

After her decrepit car broke down between gig venues too many times, the nu-folk wailer decided to DIY it from home. She broadcast her musical musings via a 60-quid webcam in her south London flat (she has clearly lifted the furniture from her "basement sessions" for tonight's performance) and staged a three-week "net tour". On the first night of her webcast 70 surfers logged on to watch. After two weeks, she had 70,000 web viewers. Avid surfers had "chosen" the embryonic Thom, a 24-year-old singer-songwriter from Banff, a small fishing village on the coast of north-east Scotland. She has since soared forth from cyberspace, and RCA/Sony have signed her up for a five-album deal worth £1m.

So Thom is another net sensation, following the Arctic Monkeys and Gnarls Barkley. The latter's song "Crazy" is the first single ever to get to No 1 on downloads alone, and in a show of net solidarity, Thom cheekily plays it tonight "as a treat". The chanteuse is flanked by her unkempt band members, the guitarist Marcus Bonfanti and the drummer Craig Connet, in this clammy venue. You'd think she could have doled out a little of her record company advance on some new clothes for her bandmates - as well as some drums for Connet, who tapped on a box all evening.

On record, Thom clearly has talent. However, there is also that lethal hint of the shopping-mall about her music that suggests it could easily grace an upmarket boutique in any global shopping precinct. Despite this, Thom has been compared with a plethora of rock heavyweights, including Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Carole King, Stevie Nicks, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. In fact, she has more in common with Alanis Morissette (angst), Eddie Reader (sprightliness), Kirsty MacColl (words) and Joni Mitchell (voice). While every new young female singer-songwriter from 1971 onwards has been compared with Mitchell, the majority are not fit to hold Joni's plectrum. Thom, however, does have huge potential.

Onstage, none of the material from her debut album, Smile... It Confuses People, an upbeat, uncomplicated hybrid of folk and soul, feels like filler. In the main, her lyrical observations are winsome and optimistic rather than sharp and edgy in the manner of, say, the perpetually cross Martha Wainwright. Her songs are replete with romantic imagery - "belle of the ball", "stardust" and "bumble bees, grazing knees" - and her insights are those of an artist in her infancy, and not fully formed. Nevertheless, her stand-out numbers, "Superman" (which she is unable to perform tonight due to a defunct keyboard) and "Time" have an exquisite, stripped-down quality which accentuate her impressive vocal range. "Time" is sumptuous, a Mary Hopkin-like lament about, ahem, the passing of time ("time catches everyone") which stands comparison with the best of Paul Simon's songbook and Dylan's "Bob Dylan's Dream".

Disappointingly, her first single is the daft but devilishly catchy "I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair)", which bemoans the onset of digital technology. This is a bit cheeky, given that the internet provided Thom with her big break. It's a clumsy song, and romanticises 1969 and 1977, two years that have about as much in common as Sir Alan Sugar and the Sugar Plum Fairy. But it has an endearingly quirky quality (only percussion accompanies Thom's voice).

This was an engaging 50 minutes or so from an unformed but precocious talent. Watch this webspace.

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