The Coral, Coliseum, London

3.00

If someone has a twisted sense of humour, it is not necessarily the band themselves. Tonight's gilded venue, home to English National Opera, is tiered like a wedding cake, though the Hoylake wizards choose to perform a mercilessly unadorned acoustic concert. In their usual casual duds, they could be in their Wirral rehearsal rooms; only singer James Skelly's fresh pudding-bowl cut,acknowledged the presence of an audience.

This event provides a launch pad for their forthcoming singles collection – most of tonight's fare has been released as such. It ought, then, to allow the lads to showcase their songwriting talents. The idea of them as being at the forefront of some Cosmic Scouser movement suggests a group too stoned to focus on anything as tangible as emotion, yet over the years they have written affecting songs that work as well on Radio 2 as in student bedsits.

Not that their path has been completely straightforward. Their 2005 album The Invisible Invasion hinted they had hit a creative brick wall, although one surmounted by the confident return of last year's Roots & Echoes. The loss then from touring of precocious guitarist Bill Ryder-Jones (now a permanent departure) rocked the boat once more and in the early part of the performance, his former bandmates seem unable to steady the ship. As the five-piece strum through perfunctory versions of "Who's Gonna Find Me" and "Jacqueline", they repeat every flourish from recorded visions.

It shows clear empathy between members, yet with unnecessary pedantry and little imagination. Rhythm guitarist Lee Southall struggles with his promotion to lead, while Skelly's own strumming remains pedestrian. Other drawbacks feel more familiar. The band have long been dismissive of showmanship, as you would expect of people suspicious of the ample mainstream airplay they have enjoyed, but in this setting, their inability to communicate beyond a terse "Ta" is self-defeating. A marked increase in intensity is sparked by the appearance of Ian Broudie, of the Lightning Seeds, who has produced two-and-a-half albums for them.

His more vivacious playing lifts a rousing "Goodbye" and provides the log-fire crackle of "Pass It On" that stays with us for the rest of the evening, of which radio hits "Dreaming of You" and "In the Morning" are comfortably the highlights. Rather than breathtaking invention, we get subtle changes in tone as the band toy with fully acoustic and semi-electric sounds. The light canter of "Liezah" suggests the milky mildness of Crosby, Stills and Nash, a constant feel this evening rather than their infamous mixes of reggae, psych and polka.

With adrenalin pumping, The Coral introduce new material. "Green Is the Colour" is cheeky pastiche, albeit of Gene Pitney fronting Fairport Convention, saved by the authority of Skelly's strong vocals. Forthcoming single "Being Somebody Else" finds his regular uneasy confusion sugared by an easy tune. "The Rovin' Jewel", a bewildering sketch about flowers and curtains, fails to progress from a still life, lifted only by Southall's liquid John Squire-style runs. A cover of "Everybody's Talkin'" has the band note-perfect again, without adding anything to the most famous version. Skelly pays a brief homage to its author, Fred Neil, but still sounds like Nilsson on the opening lines.

If we take anything special from the set, it is the occasional number that you would not hear at a regular Coral performance, the sinister ballad "Careless Hands" being a fine example. They even throw in a brief encore, a rarity for these curmudgeons, and finish with an unexpected breeze through "Bye Bye Love". "It's the first song we ever played together," Skelly curtly explains, leaving us to imagine the pre-Coral teenage covers outfit that played to Japanese tourists in The Cavern. As if to remind us those days are long gone, they depart with a grudging wave. It is a serious business being The Coral, and they don't mind letting us know.

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