ROCK / Sugar, spice, all things nice: Zucchero - Hammersmith Apollo

IF YOU want to get a handle on Zucchero - and so far few people in this country have had time for the chubby Italian with the dandy hats, jewellery, and high-gloss R&B that hovers on the cusp of soul music - try thinking of him as the Italian Mick Hucknall. He sells albums by the million in the motherland, likes to flirt with gospel, and has played with Ray Charles . . . but there the similarity ends. Apart from his duet with Paul Young, 'Senza una donna', in 1991, Zucchero has never wooed the British market.

Unable to fill a string of stadiums as he can back home, he settled for a one-off London show to test the water. Judging by the crush of snazzy winter coats in the Apollo's foyer, he attracted mainly expatriate fans; but given that he sings mostly in Italian, this was not surprising. Still, even the few Brits in the audience had little problem recognising his first 'guest', Luciano Pavarotti.

Well, Pavarotti on film, projected 30 feet high over the stage curtain, conspicuously bonding with his pop music buddy while singing the latter's composition 'Miserere'. It's chorus 'Miserere, misero me, Pero brindo alla vita' ('Unhappy me, / And yet I celebrate life') was the first taste of the self-centred sentimentality which characterises most of his lyrics and takes some getting used to. In Zucchero's soul music sass, cleverness and cutting an attitude count for far less than sheer volume of feeling.

The curtain was whipped away to reveal the band: keyboards, drums, guitar, bass, two backing singers and two horns, and of course, the stout man in the purple hat on guitar. Things didn't bode well for the first few numbers, with the crowd sitting still while Edilmo 'Sugar' Fornaciari, looking like a youthful Blakey from On the Buses, strode around under surtitles, one of which read: 'This is a shout that goes up and down / From your ass-hole to your heart.' Covent Garden it wasn't.

Suddenly, however, the show bloomed like the thousands of sunflowers projected on to the backdrop. Zucchero strapped on his acoustic guitar and dropped the pace for 'It's Alright (The Promise)', a gorgeous ballad full of steely guitar and with a quietness that suited his voice perfectly. The crowd were up on their feet, and stayed there for the Springsteeny 'Come Back the Sun', the Pope-niggling rock track 'Miss Mary' and 'Orgia', a song whose chief feature its catchy refrain, 'Sesso, sesso, sesso' ('Sex, sex, sex'), which had the fans screaming along.

As the two-hour set progressed, Zucchero showed a talent for working the room by judicious arrangement of slow and pacy numbers that only the most experienced bands can manage. Even in the dull bits (the big blues bash where each instrument cancelled out the other) there was always a sense that change was imminent: a new image on the screen, an indulgent gospel solo, a guest artist.

Yes, that was Paul Young sheepishly entering stage left for 'Senza una donna'. Both singers sound like they have head colds at the best of times, so hearing them hit the heights together is never pleasant. Zucchero, at least, plays the pop star with aplomb. He had another half hour of belters to do while Paul slunk off. One wonders who did who a favour when they first got together.

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