POP / Frankly funky

Harry Connick Jr - Royal Albert Hall
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Harry Connick doesn't so much introduce the members of his band as enter counselling with them. What for most stars is a fairly perfunctory bit of business becomes for Harry a kind of thirtysomething meets summer-camp bonding ritual that opens the set: slapping five, touching fists, even a bit of serial-hugging accompanies praise so fulsome that the musicians - a rigorously professional quartet of New Orleans hit-men - almost begin to stare at their shoes.

The over-the-top generosity continues in the opening chitchat with the audience. Somehow, Connick carries it off without mass recourse to the sick-bag. He's such a charmer that affectation comes quite naturally to him.

The early signs weren't promising; warm-up interval music came from a Led Zeppelin tape - hardly a natural starter for Harry's audience - and when the band appeared there wasn't a tuxedo in sight, for this was to be a departure from the smooth crooning and jazzy horn-play that Connick has made his name with. The new album, She, signals a move across the New Orleans board to down-home funk, and the show started - after an opening lite-rock number - as a heavy work-out on blues-based themes with Harry pounding the piano in furious barrelhouse-style or sweeping over the keys of his Hammond organ like Booker T with the MGs.

He even donned a guitar to play a long boogie solo that was like nothing so much as that moment at a party when an unknown guest picks up the acoustic from beside the fridge and starts to laboriously pick out the theme to ``Stairway to Heaven''. When the bassist and guitarist joined him at the front in an Allman Brothers-style three-axe-jam it was an uncomfortable moment. Harry isn't Eric, that's for sure.

He recovered, of course, but it was on the songs rather than the grooves that the performance excelled. Though his vocal mannerisms may be Sinatra-manque, Connick is a terrific singer and that unforced baritone colour is what most of his fans have come for. Dressed in T-shirt and chinos, as if to reinforce the vulnerable Sinatra of the ``From Here to Eternity'' persona, Connick displayed how well he can sell a song, coaxing the words from the lyric like a magician pulling rabbits from a hat.

Alone at the piano he is also a very capable performer, taking a long Thelonious Monk-ish solo that interpolated the New Orleans piano styles of Professor Longhair, Huey ``Piano'' Smith and James Booker into an improvised vamp that would not have shamed Dr John, which is no mean praise. Few people get the Albert Hall to dance.