Power to the people

Anodyne lyrics, repetitive beat... sounds like a perfect pop formula. Jane Cornwell watches M People flaunt it
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The Independent Online
"We are gonna have a good time," promises Heather Small as she shimmies on stage in silver sequins, and it's a statement taken as given. Never mind that the Royal Albert Hall audience appears to have teamed its manoeuvres at aerobics class. M People play dance music for the masses, and dancing is what they've come out to do. It seems the whole of Essex is here to enjoy a tightly produced package of greatest hits from chart- topping albums Northern Soul, Elegant Slumming and Bizarre Fruit, songs chock-full of anthemic positivity and, performed live, funfair-style entertainment.

The fact that they leap immediately to their feet for the first track, "So Excited", may be partly in relief after the incongruously programmed support act Keziah Jones, a musician's musician whose Clintonesque guitar riffs prove too difficult for a crowd intent on singing along.

But once up, they stay up. With an eight-piece backing ensemble energetically exhorting all to clap and punch the air, founder member Mike Pickering - to resounding cheers - delivers aphorisms such as "In the auditoriums, there is no black / white, gay / straight. It's a pity it's not like that out there" with evangelical verve.

That this pop-soul combo have the capacity to talk you into their feel- good fraternity comprises much of their attraction. So what if the lyrics border on the anodyne and this multi-media extravaganza (a video triptych displays a computer animated pear and sees Small surrounded by flames) is so overly slick it occasionally beggars sincerity? This evening, we are all M People.

Percussionist Shovell, a diminutive powerhouse of energy, bashes congas, drums and shakes his maracas like there's no tomorrow, as fluorescent- shirted keyboardist Paul Heard displays a fine line in one-armed overhead gesticulations. Mancunian Pickering, alternating between sax, harmonies, a perfunctory rap and dancing like an embarrassing dad at a wedding, cannot conceal a smugness borne out of instigating a no-lose formula (blending house beats with old-fashioned rock values) that owes as much to marketing as it does to unfettered talent.

M People's capturing of the Mercury Music Prize gong last year raised the hackles of many a pundit, but the longevity of the band is looking assured - unlike that of Britpop.

But it is vocalist Heather Small who shines as brightly as the thousands of tiny stars covering the backdrop during the second half. Using a lengthy instrumental intro to "How Can I Love You More" to change and re-appear in red midriff top and hipsters, she languorously croons "I give you a love so pure" and stands with arms spread-eagled as lights sweep around the auditorium. Her big, theatrical gestures match her big, theatrical voice, one which even surpasses the combined efforts of a full gospel choir brought on for the encore, "Itchycoo Park".

M People know about giving the public what they want. So next year, with world domination fairly in their sights, they'll be playing to 70,000 at Alton Towers.