Mark Ronson, Hammersmith Apollo, London

A radical joins the mainstream

Tim Walker
Tuesday 26 February 2008 01:00

Mark Ronson's Brit Award was the final nail in the coffin of his credibility. A year ago, maybe, his was still a name worth dropping. But even that was probably a bit late – one always ran the risk of meeting some clever clogs who claimed to own Ronson's little-known first album, Here Comes the Fuzz. As the curtain rose on 2008, with Version entrenched in the minds of MOR listeners nationwide, Ronson will have had to admit he's joined the mainstream.

Hence his Hammersmith Apollo gig has a far higher screaming teenage girl quotient than his shows ever used to, with the audience of 5,000 making it Ronson's biggest headline to date. The format remains rather like a charity concert. Every other song, a new guest performer is ushered to the mic, but, as on Version, the sound remains consistent thanks to Ronson's arrangements and the gameness of his band, The Version Players. A string quartet double as dancers (or at least bob their heads in time); the drummer and the brass section are both tight as, well, a drum; and bassist Stuart Zender has been a star in his own right as part of Jamiroquai's line-up.

Their considerable skills do slightly show up Ronson's lesser instrumental prowess, and this remains a problem for a guy who made his name as a superb DJ and producer, but now must become a performer too. He has plenty of his own charisma, yet always defers to his string of guest vocalists. In a sense, he is used to being the director, and now finds himself caught looking a little awkward onscreen. Should he play the leading man, or just be best supporting actor?

Ronson's greatest strength – better than his competent but limited guitar playing, for example – is his impeccable taste. His suits are natty, both the blue velvet number from the Brits and the sparkly brown tux he sports at the Apollo. His choice of songs to cover on Version had both breadth and depth; the production choices, even on lesser tracks, had panache; and his choice of collaborators was right on the money. We all know about the female stars with whose careers Ronson's own has intertwined, but in the absence of Lily Allen or Amy Winehouse, it is his male vocalists who really shine tonight.

Kenna has been an unknown quantity over here until now, but the American singer's first UK performance proves revelatory. His cover of Ryan Adams's "Amy" is exhilarating, with the live band and Kenna's dancing for company, and his own "Out of Control" is thrilling, too. Daniel Merriweather, the Australian vocalist best known for singing on Ronson's hit single "Stop Me", charms with that song, as well as a White Stripes cover and "Chainsaw", from his own forthcoming album.

Ronson's version of "Valerie" with Amy Winehouse bought the song's originators, The Zutons, a new house, he boasts. His confidence and coyness are a strange mixture, and it's hard to tell which, if either, is a front and which is for real. Introducing Tim Burgess, one of his teen idols (who performs "The Only One I Know", by his band The Charlatans), and perhaps attempting to be humble, he says: "So what if I won a few Grammys and a Brit? I'm still a fan." He name-drops Allen, whom he saw play here on her last tour; Adele, who is in the audience tonight; and Slash, whom he mentions for no other reason than that he met the guitarist in California a couple of weeks back. It's not as if we don't all already know how blithely Ronson has mingled with rock royalty his entire life.

Version's bastardised funk and soul tropes may be familiar now, but when his cover of Radiohead's "Just" first did the rounds in 2006, the sound was exciting, shiny and new. It's still great fun, but soon it'll lose its lustre. Ronson himself says he's getting tired of covers. Maybe it's almost time to find a new trick.

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