The Bees, King's College, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

The small devoted following is one of pop's perennials. And members of small devoted followings are often ambivalent about what they wish for their idols. Partly they want to keep them for themselves, because that way they stay special. And partly they want the world to wake up to them. A case in point are The Bees, the six-piece outfit from the Isle of Wight who spread happiness in such quantities that it should probably be made illegal. If there were a Mercury Prize for sheer charm, they would walk it.

Charm works best in an intimate setting, and the King's College student union was certainly that. The gig marked the halfway point of a nine-date tour that sees the band at their most publicly active outside their native island for nearly two years. Drawing heavily on their sublime second album, Free the Bees, and introducing us to new tracks from their third, Octopus - due in March - they knocked out a 90-minute set of dreamy, funk-inflected tunefulness.

It would be pointless to call The Bees derivative, because these days it's impossible not to be. Together for seven years, and now in their mid-twenties, they boast on their MySpace page that they are "wonderfully hard to categorise". The defensiveness is understandable, but just because they carry echoes of, among others, the Small Faces and early Pink Floyd, doesn't mean they have failed to create a sound of their own.

The credit for this largely goes to the virtuoso songwriting duo of Aaron Fletcher and Paul Butler, who shared duties on lead vocal and held things together in difficult circumstances. Regular drummer Michael Clevett had injured his hand and was substituted by Tom Gardner, but on some songs Butler himself picked up the sticks. Multi-instrumentalism is the norm in The Bees. Fletcher played guitar and trumpet and Tim Parkin played trumpet and keyboard. Showmanship came from the fedora-sporting guitarist Kris Birkin.

We were treated to memorable versions of "These are the Ghosts", "Wash in the Rain", "One Glass of Water", and the boogie-woogie nonsense of "Chicken Payback". The song that stood out from the forthcoming Octopus was "Listening Man", a soaring slice of pure soul on which Butler's voice seemed to have been taken over by the ghost of Sam Cooke.

That The Bees deserve to hit the big time is not in doubt. Whether their fans really want them to is another matter.

Tour ends tonight at the Manchester Club Academy (0161-275 2930)

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