Simply Red, Brighton Centre gig review: Songs to lose your problems in

All tonight’s music is true to the values of a happy, wealthy man who values control and contentment

Nick Hasted
Monday 30 November 2015 14:27
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Mick Hucknall saves the best for first. Strolling onto a UK stage as Simply Red’s singer for the first time in five years, he strums an acoustic guitar and sings “Holding Back the Years”, his best song. There’s nothing in the way of his voice, or words which allude to the mother who left when he was two and the onward rush of time. Co-written by his Manchester punk bandmate in the Frantic Elevators, Neil Moss, and a hit at the start of the 30-year career celebrated tonight, it inherently carries Hucknall’s past. With just a red-lit curtain behind him, it becomes a dignified taproom lament, something autumnal for old friends and lovers to gather to. It’s a gambit tried at length on 2005’s album of stripped-back favourites, Simplified, but none the worse for that. It’s almost a shame when the band come in.

Elsewhere in Brighton tonight, the Texan singer Josh T. Pearson has just finished music where his own life or death sometimes seem at stake. But that’s never been Simply Red’s way. These are songs to lose your problems in, transmitted by Hucknall’s fine voice, worked on till everything sounds easy. Its light, reliable caress is the legitimate source of sex appeal which mystifies sceptical men. As he showed on his honourably-meant album of Bobby Bland covers, Tribute to Bobby (2008), he has a soul singer’s grain, but none of the grit that makes that music’s pearls. He lacks what black American musicians call church chops: the missing magic isn’t from sounding suburban, which can be interesting, but secular. When he does wordlessly almost rasp on “Do the Right Thing”, it’s only budget Al Green. But then, who isn’t?

Following the boss’s lead, this is music disinclined to break sweat

As a young man, Hucknall once walked onto a three-inch ledge 30 feet from the ground to prove a point, but this is such careful music. The few asides to the audience sound made to last the whole tour. But his touching pride in sitting in Motown writer Lamont Dozier’s house to write “You’ve Got It” isn’t wholly misplaced, any more than his soul boy past. And Simply Red, for all its notoriously frequent personnel changes, remains capable of tasteful touches of jazz, soul and funk. Kevin Robinson gives a hint of Miles Davis mournfulness on trumpet, while on “Thrill Me” the percussion sound glistens, and Ian Kirkham’s sax gains muscle. Steve Lewinson’s bass sometimes stops songs simply evaporating. Following the boss’s lead, this is music disinclined to break sweat, but as the volume appears to leap for the hit-heavy home straight, it moves many to dance.

The 1985 Valentine Brothers cover which introduced Simply Red, “Money’s Too Tight To Mention”, is played to a backdrop of images of Thatcher and riot police. As apposite as ever, it nods to Hucknall’s early socialist principles. All tonight’s music is true to the values of a happy, wealthy man who values control and contentment, and makes music to match.

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