POP / Master of the universe: Andy Gill on Joe Cocker at the Forum, London

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The Independent Culture
Just like the Michael Jackson shows at Wembley a couple of years ago, Joe Cocker's appearance at the Forum is preceded by a film biography of the artist - except, being about Joe, it's a more modest affair, swiftly presenting his progress from street urchin to superstar through a series of black-and-white snapshots and testimonials from Cocker's father and peers like Eric Clapton, Ray Charles and Tina Turner.

The mere presence of the film speaks volumes about Cocker's comparative status at home and abroad: this is a stadium strategy, developed for the megadomes which are Cocker's natural habitat overseas. Squeezed into the much smaller Forum, the show gives the impression of something about to burst: can a room this small hold a voice that huge? Indeed, as the curtain rises and the band pile into 'Let the Healing Begin' a track from the new album, it sounds like they're still playing at stadium strength, with an eardrum-endangering snare-drum crack and washes of synthesiser noise.

Cocker hardly needs such assistance: he's rarely more moving than when croaking out 'You Are So Beautiful' to a solo piano accompaniment, though its effect - what US radio programmers call 'quiet storm' - depends in part on the surrounding maelstrom from which it provides brief respite.

Hence the presence of the kind of sax player who sounds like a complete horn section, and the kind of flashy blues guitarist whose spine seems surgically attached to his instrument, so that when he bends a string, his knees and back bend in sympathy. Astonishingly, Cocker's basic quintet summons up all the power and density of his former 30-strong Mad Dogs & Englishmen band.

In light jacket and dark trousers, Cocker looks pretty dapper when he strolls out, but by the third song the jacket is off, and by the fourth, his shirt-sleeves are rolled back past his elbows. The functional costume changes are indicative of the kind of work-rate that's unmatched by most footballers, let alone a 50-year-old rocker.

It's the older material, naturally, that gets the best response, songs like 'Feelin' Alright' and 'Up Where We Belong', and 'You Can Leave Your Hat On', Randy Newman's sly, pervy chuckle of a song, which Cocker manages to invest with a seething tide of barely restrained lust. The new material, by contrast, seems slightly formulaic, custom-built to furnish him with ready-made epiphanic moments, though there's no denying the way in which he grabs hold of songs like John Hiatt's 'Have a Little Faith' and makes them utterly his own. 'With a Little Help from My Friends' is the capper, of course, embellished here with a little organ overture in the manner of The Band's Garth Hudson. Cocker's performance on his signature tune is still a genuinely awe-inspiring experience, capable of rousing neck-hairs at a hundred paces; and in a nice touch, when he reaches that famous full-throated scream, strobes flicker briefly in sympathy. It's as if this one larynx is making the very fabric of the physical universe distort.

(Photograph omitted)