Union Chapel, London

Simon Price on pop: Paloma makes it oh so easy to keep the Faith

4.00

She looks like Shirley Bassey styled by Leigh Bowery – and just wait til Paloma starts singing

It often feels as if you can't buy a box of eggs or a bottle of whisky these days without some of your money going to an aggressively marketed appeal that gets the Government off the hook of funding adequate rehab and physio for the military personnel it sends to carry out its distant dirty work. The same dirty work, in fact, which makes an organisation like War Child such a grim necessity, mopping up the mess made of civilian lives in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan when the soldiers have gone home.

One of the few highlights of last month's deadly dull Brits ceremony was the Special Recognition Award presented to War Child, a music-based charity. In the weeks that followed, numerous high-profile artists have played shows to raise money for the cause. One of them is Paloma Faith, who – if the montage on BBC Breakfast the following morning is any guide – was just about the only other good thing about the Brits, illuminating the red carpet by bothering to look like someone who knows the difference between a pop star and a stockbroker on Dress-Down Friday.

At London's Union Chapel, she doesn't let the side down either. Her bottle-ginger Wilma Flintstone hair is piled into an up-do that is not so much "victory rolls" as "total merciless annihilation rolls", swaddled in a piece of iridescent fabric that's alternately black and every colour under the rainbow, depending on how the spotlight strikes it. Her outfit is cut from the same cloth, initially appearing to be a floor-length backless gown, but turning out to be a bizarrely asymmetrical trouser suit wherein the right leg is massive and skirt-like and the left one skin-tight. If Leigh Bowery restyled Shirley Bassey, it might look a little like this.

Adele may have the sales, Sandé the exposure, but Paloma Faith is arguably the most likeable British diva of the post-Amy age. One man's "charmingly eccentric" is another man's "wilfully kooky", granted, but I'm inclined to give a pass to a former burlesque act with an eye like Paloma's for post-war kitsch.

Perching on the piano-top like Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys for "Just Be", or dramatically falling to her knees for "Let Me Down Easy", she's a born performer. She can sing a bit, too. Backed by a pianist, a string quartet and two singers, she delivers Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child" in a manner that suggests she's a jazz stylist to rival she-who-shall-not-be-named. (I mentioned her once, but I think I got away with it.)

Her lyrics show a deliciously twisted view of the L-word: try "Let's grow old together/let's be unhappy for ever" for an opening couplet. There's a perceptive appreciation of the urban condition in lines such as "I know people who take midnight drives for head-space/I know what they'd give for just one loving embrace". And "Picking Up the Pieces" must have caused some uncomfortable silences, awkward coughs and paranoid trains of thought among on-the-rebound couples.

The nature of a low-key acoustic show in a church means we'll just have to imagine the Cindy Sherman she describes for new single "Black & Blue", in which Paloma, à la Annie Lennox, plays all the roles, including the men.

Speaking of bands who know about calculated androgyny, Suede (Barfly, London *****) make their contribution to the War Child coffers in what Xfm host Jon Holmes tells us is the smallest venue Suede have ever played. He's wrong, as dozens of veterans of the Africa Centre and even the White Horse could have told him, but the Barfly is nevertheless the site of yet another astonishing Suede show.

The heyday of their media mayhem may be as long ago as the foundation of War Child itself – who knew we'd all live so long that Mat Osman would be less famous than his brother Richard? – but Suede, with a new album Bloodsports ready to drop, have come back feeling more relevant, more alive, and less museum-ready than Blur, Pulp or any other of their Nineties nemeses, rivals and peers.

Wearing an open-to-the-navel white shirt, Brett Anderson struts like a bullfighter and twists like a gigolo. Mounting the monitor wedge and raging into each song, he's Über-Brett, like a Scarfe cartoon of himself.

"New one, old one," he tells us mid-gig, unnecessarily spelling out the format. The finest accolade that can be given to the new material is that it fits seamlessly with the old. The band may not welcome yet another Bowie comparison, but "Barriers" is a nu-Suede "Heroes", while "It Starts and Ends with You" is a classic barnstorming Suede single.

The classics themselves are beefed up, with auxiliary guitarist Neil Codling, inexplicably passed over for the roles of Sherlock and the Doctor, helping Richard Oakes give dirty rock'n'roll endings to "New Generation" and "Can't Get Enough". The off-centre wobble of "Killing of a Flashboy" and the unimpeachable anthem "Animal Nitrate" sound astonishing tonight, and "My Insatiable One" is a reminder of what a great lyricist Anderson can be. "On the high wire, dressed in a leotard/There wobbles one hell of a retard/On the escalator, we shit paracetamol/As the ridiculous world goes by ..." Bands of today: more of this, if you please.

As a limbering-up exercise for their Alexandra Palace show, the one thing the night lacks is a showstopping ballad. There's no "The Wild Ones", no "The 2 of Us". But when Brett and co can still pull a scorching performance like this out of the barrel, nobody is complaining.

And on the way out, no one minds dropping a tenner in a collection bucket. It's Suede and Paloma this week – and War Child every week – who are the true helpful heroes.

Critic's Choice

Olivia Newton-John, in what is said to be her final tour, plays Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff (Sun); Bournemouth International Centre (Mon); Royal Albert Hall, London (Wed); Brighton Centre (Thu); Birmingham NIA (Fri), Manchester Apollo (Sun 17). The Magic Band – minus the late Don Van Vliet – keep Captain Beefheart's memory alive at the Picture House, Edinburgh (Sun); Cluny 2, Newcastle (Mon); Eric's, Liverpool (Wed); The Duchess, York (Thu); Sub 89, Reading (Fri), Under the Bridge, London (Sat).

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